I don’t know how I stumbled on Abe Books last week, but I almost wish I hadn’t. The site connects users with independent booksellers around the world, with the emphasis on those specialising in the rare, out of print and hard to find.
It has many, many temptations. Thus far, I’ve managed to restrict myself to two books that I’ve wanted for years.
I first saw a battered edition of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land - A Facsimile & Transcript of the Original Drafts Including The Annotations of Ezra Pound at school. One of my two English teachers in the Sixth Form, Mr. F., was of the sort who had obviously watched Dead Poets Society one too many times, and fancied himself as an inspirational, groovy teacher. At the time we thought him a terrible embarrassment, but in retrospect he did a pretty decent job of turning a bunch of stoned schoolboys on to Modernist poetry, Joyce, Beckett, Ionesco and Pinter. Martin Esslin’s Theatre of the Absurd is the only textbook I remember referring to, and I still don’t understand how the syllabus slipped past the Head of Department in a distinctly old-fashioned school.
Anyway, the self-appointed grandstanding super-hip teach, Mr. F., produced his annotated copy of The Waste Land with such a flourish that I believed his claims of its impossible rarity and great value, which - aside from the fact that it is a riveting look at a collaborative process that turned an unweildy epic into a dense, beautiful poem - made me really want a copy, while assuming that it would be forever out of reach. A quick search on Abe Books, and I am in touch with Francis Edwards of Haye-on-Wye, antiquarian booksellers since 1855, who have a First Edition. For £30. And now I have it, after a dozen years.
The second book is a little less exciting, and one I should really have bought years ago: Contemporary Artists, the weighty reference tome edited by Colin Naylor and Genesis P. Orridge. It has biographies, brief essays and statements on everyone from Abakanowicz, Magdalena to Zox, Larry. Essential stuff, to the extent that I’m beginning to think lustful thoughts about the 2nd and 3rd editions.
If you haven’t seen Abe Books before, my apologies for linking to it. It’s my most dangerous discovery on the web since I stumbled on that weird site where everything is for sale. It might not be as good as trawling a real bookshop and getting dust up your nose, but the arcane argot of booksellers - can that really be a VG 1st Ed. thus. 4to d/w? And with dec cl binding? - just about makes up for the lack of tactile browsing.
See also: Dotcom chapter of success, a Guardian piece on the site.