Visiting Jack Matthews (Photo Essay)

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Jack Matthews in Athens, Ohio. Thrilling!

Details of the visit will appear occasionally on this blog. For now here are some photos which I took during my visit.


This is Jack Matthews in front of his writing desk Click to see more.

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Jack Matthews: On choosing the right name for a story character

(Here is a brief excerpt from  WORKER’s WRITEBOOK, an unpublished notebook  about the art of writing fiction  which Jack Matthews prepared for  his  Ohio U. creative writing students in the 1990s). An ebook version of this work will be available January 2011).     image

Creativity finds its natural expression in the generation and testing of hypotheses. Actually, it has more to do with the generation than the testing, but we’ll leave the testing part in, for-like the Background to the Opening Scene phases in a story, it cannot be easily distinguished from the generation. Even as we spin an idea, a cadre of analysts in the mind’s bureaucracy are busily probing it and assessing it for its worth.

The words “What if” signal the release of a question or hypothesis, and with it, the imagination. “What if a man awakens one morning to find that his wife has left him?” Is this a good idea?  Well, possibly. It’s hard to tell. Why is it hard to tell? Because it’s too vague. Already, dullness has crept in. Rather, nothing has crept in, and nothing has yet come alive. Why not? Because the idea remains too abstract, too featureless.

So what is one to do? Well, several things are possible. No two writers will bring this idea to life in the same way, and what might be perfect for one, will be deadly dull for the other. Still, there are changes and additions that will unquestionably improve it. Consider this one: “What if Burton Fife, a 78 year old retired fireman, awakes one morning to find that his wife, Phyllis, has left him?”

Is this better? It is. It’s more real, more concrete, more precise. No man is simply a man: all are individual men, with individual names, and whatever happens to them, it will happen at a particular age. And if we change Burton Fife’s name to “Kirk Wolker,” we create a new set of probabilities. Probabilities for whom? For the writer, first; and then, for those later readers who will participate in the story’s meaning.

Of course there are generational codes in the names. Today, Burton Fife will likely be 78 years old, but Kirk Wolker will probably be 32. How can I know this? Well, look around and listen. But are such generational codes always reliable? Of course not; but if you shift their ages, making Kirk 78 and Burton 32, be aware that you are working against stereotypes as they are fixed in the generational codes of proper names. Yes, but are such stereotypes important? Of course they are. Stereotypes are always true, they’re just not true enough.

Note that the information supplied to bring the man in this “what if” alive is information about his name and his age. These are two of the most important things to be known about a character. For a variety of often quite mysterious reasons, names function almost like a genetic (as well as generational) code. You and I may not agree about what the name “Nellie Powers” connotes, and in fact neither of us may be able to describe clearly what this connotation is (I certainly can’t); but the name will nevertheless have a specific rightness for an author.

People are not simply denoted by their names, but to some extent defined by them, in every name there is an onomastic code. A new-born girl named “Nellie” will have a slightly different life from one named “Charity.” Why? Because we are born into a language as we are born into a world that features gravity and the oxygen/carbon dioxide cycle. Her name will affect other people, and thereby Nellie/Charity herself. Is this fair? Whether it’s fair or not is irrelevant; but the answer is, it probably isn’t fair. And yet, what is? Is it fair that some children should be born genetically rich, while others are genetically poor?

Which name will be more helpful in sliding that little hypothetical girl without friction into today’s world? You’re right; not Nellie. But is it possible that Nellie might prove a “good” name? It all depends. You pay a price for everything, and the price you pay for giving your modern little infant girl a nice old-fashioned name may be a constant inhibition to her (“I just hate my name!” Nellie may cry when she’s fifteen), or it may be a source of strength (“You know, your name’s really different!” people may say to her, and she may accept this comment proudly).

While little Nellie’s scenario provides an interesting study in onomastics, it may not seem to concern us as writers. But of course it does. As writers, our most intimate connection with our characters is through their names. Decades ago, I wrote a story about a nurse named “Avis,” who lived in an old gothic house on the shores of Lake Erie, where she had custody over a microcephalic idiot named Wilbur Postlewaite. Shortly after I wrote this story, the slogan “Avis Tries Harder” was developed by a car rental agency and often repeated on TV ads. So I changed the name of my character to “Cleo.” Did that make a difference? Indeed it did; I could feel the force of it ripple throughout the whole story, which means I had to change other things in the story that in my imagination were more fitting for a “Cleo” than an “Avis.” The story was eventually published, whereupon it fell into some great and noble silence.

(This excerpt first appeared on Teleread in February 2010).

Posted in Book Excerpts, By Jack Mathews | Leave a comment

2009 Interview with Jack Matthews

This interview was conducted via email in Summer, 2009 just after Jack Matthews’ 84th birthday. Throughout the process, Matthews had a lot of fun with it: answers were sometimes full of deliberate misspellings and archaic contractions. After I assembled his answers into a rough draft image (where I replaced ampersands in his answers with the spelled out word “and”), Matthews protested; punctuation was for him a religious matter; I later learned he had once published an essay “Philosophy of the Comma” to explore (among other things) the question of whether the “frequency of semi-colons in a prose text is a clear and accurate measure of the author’s intelligence.” Sometimes I would be disconcerted by the superficiality of an answer (only to learn later that he had already written an essay about the same topic or devoted a chapter to the subject in his unpublished 1994 A WORKER’S WRITEBOOK). See also: Jack Matthews: An Introduction, Jack Matthews: The Art and Sport of Book Collecting), and On Choosing the Right Name for a Story Character. Also, some of my superficial ramblings about what makes a Jack Matthews short story so special.

The Author and his craft

How long does it take a serious writer to learn brevity? Mastery of form? The ability to produce a deep aesthetic enjoyment?

This is an interesting question — like the others, indeed, but not as answerable as they. I think one strives to generate meaning as energy; it’s like a demonstration in classical mechanics in physics: we say we are “moved” by a story, for example. So if there is a quantum of meaning expressible in 20 words and you express it in 10, you’ve doubled the power of the sentence. (This quantification is very crude, of course, and doesn’t do justice to the beautiful complexity of a good sentence). Continue reading

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Jack Matthews: An Author which the Internet Forgot

image My introduction to short story writer Jack Matthews could not be more accidental. Between 2007 and 2008, I had been downloading and listening to a series of author interviews conducted by Don Swaim during the 1970s and 80s. Don Swaim did a series of 3 minute interviews with CBS Radio Services called Book Beat, presumably when authors showed up in NYC for a book tour.  Swaim shot the breeze with authors for an hour, talking about random things, and later found enough material for the three minute segment that actually aired.  But he saved the audio from the full interviews, digitalized them and put them online.

The Wired for Books  interviews themselves are unpredictable, unrehearsed, meandering, sometimes dull and sometimes overly focused on topical irrelevancies (See Note below). Unlike the erudite interviews of  the KCRW Bookworm podcast, (which Michael Silverblatt conducts like a graduate student eager to show off his profound understanding of an  author’s oeuvre),  the exigencies of a radio schedule gave Swaim little time to do real preparation.  Over the decades  Swaim interviewed a number of literary greats (both recognized and unrecognized). At the same time, he interviewed a lot of popular authors, biographers, historians  and celebrities who had no business writing books.

Sometime in 2008, I was listening to a random mp3 while doing housework.  It was a fascinating interview with a man who collected rare books and had recently published a book about book collecting. Midway through the interview, I realized I had already heard the same interview while driving from San Antonio to Houston. I remember making  a mental note to look the author up, but never did.

His name was Jack Matthews, and the interview was done  in 1984. (Listen to the mp3). When I googled around, I discovered some amazing things:

  • Not only was Jack Matthews still alive, he was  teaching classes part-time at Ohio University at the age of 84.
  • Almost all of his 20+ books are available as used books on and If you don’t include shipping costs,  about 2/3 of them are available for less than $1.
  • Despite the fact that books by Matthews have received good reviews  from New York Times, Time Magazine, LA Times, London Review of Books and Washington Post and blurbs from Eudora Welty, Anthony Burgess and James Dickey,  not one of his books has ever received a comment on – not one!
  • The  Wikipedia page for Jack Matthews still goes to a biography of   the Welsh rugby player.

When asked in the 1984 interview whether he saw talent in his writing students, Matthews talked about a professor of his  once told him that  in his own way Matthews was “probably one of the worst writers in the class”:

Of course it’s hard to insult somebody who has the ego to be a writer. I simply drew a line around the phrase “in my own way” and cherished that  if I was going to be bad, at least I was being  uniquely bad. It is hard to determine — to judge –  who might or might not be successful. Certainly there are very few students who have the neural muscularity — (to use an utterly impossible metaphor) — who have the strength of nerve to become a writer. It’s a cruel undertaking — the assaults upon the ego are notorious, and that’s why  a lot of writers  become celebrities and celebrities generally tend to  be fear biters; but occasionally you will find a student who has a natural gift..

In 2009 I read a large number of his books and interviewed Matthews by email.  For the next week or so Teleread will run the complete interview broken into three  parts along with an excerpt from his unpublished WORKER’s WRITEBOOK  (a how-to book for student writers). I’ll also be making some posts about the works of Jack Matthews and why I feel he is important to the 21st century reader.  In addition to his fiction, Jack Matthews has published reflections about the nature of book collecting and the role of libraries in our culture.

Stanley Lindberg wrote:

Engaging wit and irony have been characteristic of Matthews’s writing from the start, and both are strongly present in his latest gatherings of stories. His irony is increasingly darker, however, and his characters’ obsession with memory and its distortions plays a more dominant role in this later work, much of which deals with death. For the most part, these are stories with deceptively simple and ordinary surfaces, but they are driven by powerful and ominous undercurrents, which often fuse the local and regional with the archetypal. Few can do it better. Without question, Matthews has established himself as one of America’s finest storytellers.

Reading Jack Matthews: Where to Start

Let me outline his literary output   and suggest where to start reading.

In the 1960s  he published a poetry book and a short story collection, then HANGER STOUT AWAKE, an easygoing  novel about a high school boy with a peculiar talent.   In the seventies he published several other novels, including my personal favorite TALE OF ASA BEAN (the story of a cerebral geek obsessed with both sex and writing ludicrous art manifestos).  His book THE CHARISMA CAMPAIGNS (a dialogue-driven  tale of a used car salesman in a small town) was nominated for a National Book Award. In the 1980s after publishing the novel SASSAFRAS (about a phrenologist giving shows on the 19th century American Frontier), Jack Matthews published several story collections with Johns Hopkins U. Press (CRAZY WOMEN, DIRTY TRICKS, DUBIOUS PERSUASIONS, GHOSTLY POPULATIONS and STORYHOOD AS WE KNOW IT). He also started publishing essay collections about the philosophical aspects of book collecting, starting with BOOKING IN THE HEARTLAND.  Since the 1990s, he has continued  publishing collections of stories and essays  every few years. These are more of the same (and  wonderful). In the current century he has returned to shorter literary forms and poetry. SCHOPENHAUER’S WILL was published in Czech translation overseas a few years ago, but has still not found a publisher in the US.  His most recent collection ABRUPTIONS (“short stories which end abruptly”) is still looking for a publisher, while his next novel GAMBLER’s NEPHEW will be published in 2011.

image Start  by reading any of his short story collections from the 1980s or 1990s.  They are inventive and philosophical but generally easy-to-read    (my personal preference is CRAZY WOMEN – where every story contains at least one crazy woman!)  Also, let me recommend TALES OF THE OHIO LAND, a series of original historical tales that seem to read more like American folklore than short stories. Full of incident and bits of history, I think any middle school student would be able to  get into TALES (which is adorned with lovely drawings from Matthews’ own  daughter). Most high school students could get into  HANGER STOUT AWAKE  and identify with the narrator (although  some of the references might   seem  dated).

For essay collections, I’d start with BOOKING IN THE HEARTLAND which consists  of philosophical digressions about book collecting. This  book is positively Emersonian  – especially in the first essay called “Wasting Time.” It is also funny and thought-provoking; one of my alltime faves!  The later volumes of  essay collections (MEMOIRS OF A BOOKMAN, READING MATTER: A RABID BIBLIOPHILE’S ADVENTURES AMONG OLD AND RARE BOOKS and BOOKING PLEASURES follow the same basic formula as BOOKING and are just as interesting.  (His 1977 work COLLECTING RARE BOOKS FOR PLEASURE AND PROFIT is interesting but a little dated).

I haven’t read any of Matthews’ fiction books  from the current century (none of them have been published yet on American soil!), but they sound more aphoristic and experimental, more concerned with form and genre and less concerned with entertaining people around a campfire. If you want to get a sense of what the 21st century Jack Matthews  is like, you could read several flash stories he published in Agni Review under the pseudonym Matt Hughes.  For me they read more like philosophical fables than flesh-and-blood stories, but they are still fun.

As I mentioned, the 25 minute  1984 Wired for Books interview is good.  It is available in both mp3 and streamed Real Audio files. If you can deal with Real Media streaming, you can hear Jack Matthews read  his mysterious/supernatural story Girl at the Window (which strikes me as interesting in a Turn-of-the-Screw  way). Also,  marginally relevant (but still fascinating) is a 46 minute dialogue between Don Swaim and Jack Matthews about Ambrose Bierce. (A little backstory: Don Swaim is a Bierce fanatic, as his personal website will show and Bierce hails from Ohio – as do Swaim and Matthews).

Finally, for those who stubbornly refuse to read anything  not readable on an ebook reader,  I am happy to report that  my city library subscribes to JSTOR , a scholarly journal archive that  lets patrons  download full-text articles as PDFs from selected  literary magazines (such as Antioch Review and North American Review). In less than 5 minutes I had downloaded 30+ PDFs out of the 200+ JSTOR search results.  In fact, Jack Matthews has published widely in literary journals (and most of these things later turn up in  books); they  just can’t be found by googling.  (If you’re using JSTOR, try looking for  the excellent “The Library: Whose Apple” essay from the Antioch Review).   Most libraries probably have  similar subscriptions available for patrons.

Neglected Writers: Why Don’t They Just Get on Twitter?

Those  in  publishing know there is nothing particularly unusual  about an author being underappreciated or unrecognized.  His books going out of print…..yawn!  Should we continue to act surprised when  celebrity “authors”  are invited  on talk show to promote their “books”  while at the same time career writers have problems getting published (much less reviewed). Join the club, most    would  say.

Even if we accept  these things as part of the  cold hard reality of publishing, the case of Jack Matthews still seems unusual.  Naturally I don’t expect everyone to share  my superlative assessment of his oeuvre. But I expect bookish people at least to have heard of him.   Even my bookish friends who go out of their way to read  the latest novel from Africa or the experimental novella from  50 years ago draw a blank at the mention of the name.   Matthews has been publishing reliably in college literary journals; two university presses (JHU and Ohio U) have published his books (in addition to Putnam, Harcourt  and Scribner’s).  Oddly, Johns Hopkins Press was publishing his works at the same time I was getting my master’s from  their creative writing program. Yet I never heard  anything about Matthews (and neither did  other JHU classmates).  It was only blind luck that I stumbled upon the audio interview 20 years later.

Sure, writing is its own reward, and  Matthews has had a successful career by many measures; surely he is  well-known by literati inside his home state of  Ohio. But what is Ohio anyway? With a population of a mere  11.5 million –  surely no well-known author has ever managed to  come out of that literary backwater (more).

The reasons  84 year old Jack Matthews still has not received a single review on are obvious. He has not opened a Twitter account, started a Facebook fan  page, launched  a blog, put up a promotional video on Youtube or adopted the  the latest technological/promotional fad-of-the-week.  Out of all the literary shortcomings a storyteller can have, technological idiocy is by far the most unforgivable.

Only a fraction of deserving authors are ever noticed by prize committees or the generous eyes of Oprah  or  the New Yorker. What should older & obscure midlist authors do in the meantime? Even literary bloggers (who go out of their way to seek out quality writing) seem to be more focused on winnowing through  the best offerings from Amazon vine than uncovering neglected writers.  That is understandable; given  that the number of books  published annually has doubled between 2003 and 2008, one can hardly  blame them for preferring not to linger in  the hazy  past  of the  1980s.

As I said, I don’t expect readers of this essay to agree with my literary assessment; you should make up your own minds by reading Matthews yourself.    But Matthews is not a hard writer; occasionally he experiments with technique and at times his style can be sophisticated (but never abstruse);  sure,   his  latest (unpublished)  fiction seems esoteric and cerebral,  but most of his fiction is accessible and  easy-to-read; it portrays ordinary life with sincerity, compassion  and humor. Surely a book club that reads Roberto Bolaño or Jhumpa Lahiri would have little problem understanding or appreciating Jack Matthews.

It is commonplace to lament the decline of literary standards or the decline of reading overall. That is not the problem. We just have more of everything: more crap, more genius and more stuff in between. On the flip side, that leaves us less time to go exploring different authors, less time to take a chance on   unknown qualities. Already we have 108 years worth of Nobel Prize winning authors to catch up with;  we could probably spend our entire adult years just reading works by Nobel Prize winners and have time for nothing else.

This literary abundance is something   to be thankful for. At the same time it virtually guarantees that many great writers will remain invisible to readers and    critics.  I mention the fact that Jack Matthews has received no reviews as an unfortunate consequence of obscurity.  But not receiving  a single customer review  is  a common occurrence for ebooks and self-published books. How many times have you bought  a book online simply on the basis of glowing reviews on or changed your mind when you realized there were none ? A while back I forwarded to Mr. Matthews a scabrous (and totally unfair) review of one of his books from an online site.   Both of us laughed it off.  At the same time,  we were amazed and almost  gratified that someone had taken the time  to read and hate a book so vigorously. It was almost reassuring.

In his book-collecting journeys, Matthews acknowledged the rare circumstances of discovering a book:

A book is, after all, part of  a message: it is the transmitting part of that does not become a full message until it is received or read. Consider a used-book store, with shelves crowded to groaning under their thousands of books; then consider how many of these books are being read now, or have been read within the past year, or even the past decade, by anyone.

In short, it can be an adventure and an excitement to read from an old, forgotten book and thus receive a message no one else today is taking in, or no one else remembers clearly. It is an act of liberation, of freedom, to pick up a volume on impulse, give it a few minutes and listen to the message it is sending out. No doubt most of the books you pick up will prove worthless to you at that time; still you have given them another chance, and you haven’t really wasted your time. (Collecting Rare Books for Pleasure & Profit, p 24).

From the author’s point of view, the public’s neglect of his works can be dispiriting. But from the reader’s point of view, this neglect   provide a delicious opportunity to discover a new and unfamiliar wine … and then to share it with everybody.



More about the Wired for Books interviews. Yes, I have listened to all 250+ of the WFB interviews. They run the gamut, and about 30% could be classified as “celebrity interviews” but most are entertaining and insightful. Part of the charm of these interviews comes from the fact that the author guests never expected that the full audio would ever be archived somewhere. They thought they were recording only a  3 minute interview.  Interviews I recommend: Ray Bradbury (what a raconteur), Barry HannahThomas KeneallyJane Smiley (total egghead), John Barth (IBID),  James Dickey (highly entertaining and insightful), James Michener (not a fan of his fiction, but his anecdotes here were great) Jerzy Kosinski (he sounded like a loon and he was defensive about a minor literary scandal, but still an amazing interview), Harold Brodkey, Henry Louis Gates (talks about unearthing early African-American novel Our Nig)   William Shirer (talked about  WW2 reporting), John Gardner (sounds  more modest and open-minded than I expected),  Walter Tevis, P.D. James (never expected to enjoy this as much as I did), Doris Lessing, Han Suyin (great interview! brilliant and fascinating Asian woman!)  Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers!), Karl Shapiro, and Raymond Carver (the two interviews  were interesting though not particularly riveting;  the interview with his wife Tess Gallagher is a lot more revealing).

(This essay originally appeared on February 26 2010).

Posted in By Robert Nagle, secondary works | Leave a comment

Jack Matthews: The Art (and Sport) of Book Collecting

Many authors rail against  the inanities and injustices  of the literary marketplace; Jack Matthews plays it like  a  game. And if you’re playing, it’s a lot more fun to play as a book collector than as an author. The book collecting sport is part treasure hunt (Matthews calculated  that over his lifetime he had driven more than    a million miles in search of books) and part casino. Which books are likely to appreciate in value and which ones are likely to plummet? These are fundamentally economic and recreational questions, not literary ones. Jack Matthews is a cheerful capitalist (delightfully bargaining people down and unapologetic about showing up at estate sales to buy rare books from clueless relatives of the deceased). Although Matthews is primary a fiction writer,  his 1977  best selling book Collecting Rare Books for Pleasure and Profit is a practical guide for how to turn an expensive hobby into an occasionally lucrative pastime.

First and foremost, Matthews believes that books are economic creations:

Even the finest, most beautiful, most desirable books have cost money; they have been paid for at sometime, by someone; even if they were lovingly constructed by one man, from the papermaking to the designing and casting of the type, and then bestowed upon others as gifts, somebody had to pay for the raw materials and previous workmanship. We live in that kind of world. It is, among other things, an economic world, and any object that possesses – or is considered to possess – value is likely to wear some kind of price tag. Whatever has a price tag shows some character and potential as an investment. (CRBFPAP, p 55)

When he once asked author and bookstore owner Larry McMurtry what he thought about investing in rare books, McMurtry replied, “We don’t like customers who regard books as investments. Also I don’t like being collected, although I like being read.” Matthews sardonically adds,

Unquestionably, the rest of us should feel grateful for the existence of such high-minded folks; they make the world just a little better for all of us. (CRBFPAP, p 57)

Rare books are generally not thought to be reliable investments, but that is missing the point.  The most impressive “investments “  are old books which are bought for pennies and sold later for higher prices. Matthews rejects the claim that collecting rare books ignores their true literary or spiritual value. What  silliness! He adds:

It is a similar silliness to pretend that buying books “as an investment” is incompatible with scholarship or the true love of literature; Quite the contrary; it is the man who divides his love of literature from the material life who is the true heretic, using only the public library or the niggardly functional paperback for the leavening of his sensibility, and investing his money in Ford Motor Company and AT&T stock. What a dreary divarication is this, and how schizoid and truly mercenary is the man who plays such a nasty game against himself! To invest in books does not imply that the collector intends to sell them; he merely buys them with the conviction that his taste in honoring them will be validated by posterity and that – with effort and know-how comparable to those of other investors – this validation will have a dimension of financial profit.  The investment aspect of collecting is utterly fascinating, for it carries with it the excitement of competition in skill, expertise and taste. Often, too, there is the added excitement of the chase, in the auction room, the book fair and in the “field,” tracking down literary manuscripts, letters or rare titles.  (CRBFPAP, p 6-77)

Part of the reward is the fun inherent in collecting. Matthews writes:

The way to be happy, an unhappy man once claimed, lies in being occupied with the perfectly trivial. Happiness is itself not at all trivial, however, even though its poor cousins pleasure and entertainment may be considered so. What explains the mania some people have for collecting such objects as rocks, empty whiskey bottles, noncirculating coins, carnival glass, butterfly corpses, and old dueling pistols? Quite independent of any aesthetic value, and independent of any negotiable value they might acquire because of the similar passions of others, there is a simple joy in collecting them. This joy to collect seems intrinsic, for very young children possess it and soon extend the simple delights of touching and owning to include those more sophisticated delights of building and ordering.  (CRBFPAP, p 13)

But the journey is also part of the fun. When  hunting for books, you are usually not seeking a specific title but simply awaiting the unexpected.  Leaving things open to chance relieves the individual of the burden of decision-making and opens new adventurous possibilities:

The psychological rewards of aleatory choice are considerable. Independent of any rational defensible premise for belief, there are symbolic reasons for employing it. However, entered upon, and whatever the consequences, the quasi fatalism inherent in such behavior is balm to us as we blunder wild-eyed and panting through the daily jungle of decisions. Balm, and something like sanity. (Booking in the Heartland, p107)

That leaves the individual book collector with a sense of destiny:

…when Heliodorus’s book and I were introduced, two histories converged: one of over three and a half centuries and the other somewhat less. As a book collector, I find myself verging upon a superstitious belief in signs. If I hadn’t stopped at that downtrodden little erstwhile filling station in western Virginia, then I wouldn’t have gotten one of the most cherished books in my collection. If you look hard enough, and search with enough energy, books seem to come alive in ways different from the metaphorical life we know they possess: they seem to come to you as much as you come to them, pretty much as you witness fence posts, telephone poles and advertising signs approaching as you ride in a passenger car. (BITH, p12)

Assessing a Book’s  Value

But  what good is a chance encounter with a book if that book has no value?  Some books affect and edify us more. But how does one determine value?

First, there is the idea of scarcity (which can easily be manipulated).  In “The Abasement of the Northmores” by Henry James, a widow named Mrs. Hope  publishes all her dead husband’s intimate letters into a single volume and prints exactly one copy (which she hopes will be printed in another edition for the rest of the world to read). About this imaginary book, Matthews asks: Portrait_of_Henry_James_1913 by John Singer Sargent

Is poor Mrs. Hope’s single-copy first edition a rare book? One might think so, for it was indeed the only extant copy. The point of the story, however, requires that we understand that it not a rare book, it was merely scarce. To be rare, it would have to be valued by more than the author’s pathetic window. It would, in fact, have to be somewhat generally conceded to be worth having. It would have to be desired at the level of affluence (what if a single copy of an unknown book by James himself were discovered!); it would have to be sought after, as well as scarce, to be properly classified as rare(CRBFPAP, p 28)

Next, there is the value of “first editions” which are not only rare but bring the reader back to the original context in which the book was produced. Matthews writes:

… (T)he style of Trollope’s time, as well as that of the man himself, is expressed in the physical book — the paper, the binding, the illustrations, the type. The first edition possesses its own signature; it is the book as Trollope first knew it, and it thus possesses a validity that later editions — even skillfully produced facsimiles, and even those that followed almost immediately — do not possess symbolically …

…The collector of first editions is therefore concerned with the genuine and natural state, in both these old-fashioned conceptions, of the books he honors and desires to own.  This is one aspect of the reality he desires. (CRBFPAP, p 22-3)

A book can acquire accidental value by virtue of its historical context or the reality it reveals. I will discuss  this kind of valuing  in more depth in a later essay.

But what about the opinion of literary critics and generations of readers? Don’t they count for a work’s valuation also?  Of course they can and do, but these estimations are actually taken into account into the overall perception of price and value. Remember – Matthews says — “price is a metaphor(CRBFPAP, p 26).  It is foolish to regard the current price (or any price) of a book as an objective statement of the book’s value; instead it merely reflects the market value given to something during  a certain snapshot of time.  Only time will tell if this relative value will rise or fall; does anyone  care to speculate?

Lingering questions for ebook lovers

To the contemporary ebook enthusiast, talking about rare books seems both quaint and ridiculous. After all, books can be published on the fly and in abundance; digital copies and piracy ensure that people are never lacking in reading material. One week, the whole world is talking about the new Harry Potter book or the latest Sarah Palin memoir; the next week, these kinds of books are everywhere: at supermarkets, airports and yes even on file-sharing sites.

Jack Matthews has written widely about the literary marketplace of previous centuries;  but how much really has really changed? Aren’t  the  fundamental questions the same?  How do I find good  things to read? How do I reach a wider audience?  How do I avoid reading too much crap?  How do I create the ideal reading experience?   What’s the best way to preserve or memorialize works which have given me pleasure or understanding? How can I ensure that my original investment in time or money will bring an adequate return?

Here are some random things to reflect upon:

  • Can digital objects by themselves have value as a collectible? Or must they be wedded to physical devices  to attain the status of collectibility?   (Note the irony here: it is customary for  ebook enthusiasts to complain about digital rights management (DRM) that tie ownership of a digital work to a specific device even though it might increase the ebook device’s collectibility).
  • Will the availability  of ebooks (and especially ebooks of public domain works) significantly reduce the economic value of  rare print books?
  • The Internet brings abundant information and  expert knowledge to even the most casual collector. How will that change the way they collect and the kinds of books they collect?
  • If  ebook licenses generally forbid transfer of ownership,  how will that affect the distribution of literary works over time? If there is no aftermarket for ebooks, how does that affect the  ability of an older work  to re-circulate throughout the community of readers?
  • What is the relationship between  profit-oriented  curators of books (book collectors)  and  noncommercial  curators (librarians, academics)? If the aftermarket for ebooks is suppressed by restrictive licenses, will  noncommercial curators be sufficiently adventurous to unearth and preserve hidden treasures?
  • In one essay, Matthews expresses amazement at stumbling upon a 19th century book Ribs & Trunks (whose first chapter on whaling  anticipates Moby Dick by 9 years  and  uses a bombastic style uncannily similar to Melville’s).  Here is the Google Books link for Ribs and Trunks.  There. I have just saved you the  hours or days Jack Matthews spent  tracking down and investigating this book.  Does having instant access to this text automatically make it easier or harder  for the contemporary reader to  derive value and pleasure from it?  How psychologically necessary is the  journey to the book?
  • How engaged should the writer/storyteller be to how  the current market values his work? Aside from writing  a good or useful narrative and packaging it attractively, is the author  powerless  to manipulate  its  market value?
  • If an artistic  work is given away for free, how does that affect the value of the work itself (both in economic and philosophic terms)?  Leaving aside the cost of producing “free works,” does the market assign an economic value even to free works? Is it possible for a great literary work never to have an economic value for  readers and distributors?
  • Ebooks mean that bibliophiles no longer need to drive from city to city in the hopes of acquiring  a rare classic at a book shop or library sale. That brings obvious  ecological benefits. But when you minimize  or eliminate the need for this meatspace  journey, how can the literary prospector scavenge with the same amount  of zeal? Are there ways to stumble upon content which  had been already  overlooked by thousands (if not millions) of other prospectors?
  • If it is no longer necessary to travel to different places  to find books – to wake up early to be the first in line at that library or estate sale –  how will that change the things we collect? What kinds of things will be overlooked? What kind of information or “metadata” will we miss?
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