Nabokov’s Butterfly by Rick Gekoski

Nabokov's ButterflyDid I write, when I bought Nabokov’s Butterfly (2004) in the US, that it was called Tolkien’s Gown in the UK? It was one of those facts that I kept telling people when I was jet-lagged. Sorry to all those people.

Anyway, it was one of the books I bought from the books-about-books shelves in the US, and I believe Gekoski is American. So it felt a little less exotic than expected when I opened it to find Iffley Road, Oxford mentioned early on – since I live off it. He also mentions Cowley Road bookshop, which no longer exists, perhaps unsurprisingly.

This book has quite a lot in common with Old Books, Rare Friends by Leona Rostenberg & Madeleine Stern, in that Gekoski is a rare books dealer. Indeed, the Radio 4 series from which this book derives was called Rare Books, Rare People. Unlike those ladies, though, his main interest is the 20th century, rather than incunabula and the like. And it will come as no surprise that that was rather more up my street. This collection looks at 20 different famous works of the modern period, from The Picture of Dorian Gray (sneaking into the ‘long’ 20th century bracket) to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – discussing the genesis of each book, and also any notable copies that had ever passed through Gekoski’s hands.

I loved so much about it, even if a lot was already familiar. Those of us who love 20th-century literature – and particularly those of us who have studied it – will probably already know how Ulysses came about, or the events that surrounded The Satanic Verses. But, then again, I knew little about the background to Lord of the Flies or the little-known Graham Greene work After Two Years. And I am always willing to read somebody enthusing about A Confederacy of Dunces.

The potted histories of these works (and Lolita, Bridehead RevisitedAnimal FarmOn the RoadThe Tale of Peter Rabbit, etc. etc.; there is a lovely variety) is done extremely well. Nothing would astound a fan of each individual work, but having details together, concisely and well-managed, is a treat. And then we get to hear how Gekoski spent time with Graham Greene, was indirectly mentioned in the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, ordered a limit edition of a book and bought all of them, and so on. There is a personal angle that is unique to Gekoski’s perspective.

And that perspective is certainly unusual. I bemoaned, in Old Friends, Rare Books, that they prized books for their monetary value over the content; it didn’t sit well with a bibliophile like myself who cares little for condition or edition. And Gekoski is fighting this in himself, in seems. Early on, he says almost exactly that:

I knew very little about first editions at the time, and if you had told me I would spend a good part of my adult life dealing with them, I would have been astonished and horrified. Who cared about what edition you read? It was content that mattered.

And, later, when discussing why books must be pristine to be worth a lot of money, he writes:

All I ask, in the gleaming light of such perfection, is: why? With antique furniture we value the effects of time on the surface of an object, and call it patina; with paintings, we howl when inept restorers reproduce the way an oil painting would have looked on the day it was painted. The criterion that an object be in perfect, original condition is usually reserved for the collecting of piffling doo-dahs – of stamps, teddy bears, or dinky toys. But books? Books?

How did this happen? And for what reason? What, as an analyst might inquire, is the pathology behind it? because this ludicrous insistence on perfect condition strikes one more as a symptom than a rational goal.

He doesn’t have any answers. He is not a renegade in the book industry – at least not in this way. The nearest he gets in these laments, and pointing out that children’s literature that does well in the rare books world now must never have been appreciated properly by its intended audience.

So, yes, I didn’t much care when he listed how much various books had sold for at different points in his career – not least because (a) it’s at least ten years ago, and will all have changed, and (b) each time the amount was given in dollars in brackets, which got tedious. (Somehow the editors were able to do those exchanges, but didn’t bother removing various references to Tolkien’s Gown in the introduction.) (Did I mention it had a different title?) (Yes, of course I did.)

Basically, it would be difficult to find a book about books that I didn’t like a lot. Throw in humour and a focus on the 20th century, and I’m sold. It was also a perfect book to read on the aeroplane, because I could read it in bursts of concentration between bad films (Horrible Bosses 2 is fabs, guys) and being given endless tiny cups of water.

This review ended weirdly. Sure, ok. YAY BOOKS!

10 thoughts on “Nabokov’s Butterfly by Rick Gekoski

  • May 13, 2015 at 10:08 am

    Sounds fascinating Simon – and I’m glad he has a little more of the book lover than the book collector about him. As I may have commented before, I found myself struggling to enjoy a similar book by John, who claimed to be a bibliophile but ended up only talking about the values and the money involved. And if I had to choose a title I’d prefer Nabokov’s Butterfly!

    • May 13, 2015 at 10:12 pm

      This certainly had more about the values than I’d have liked, but not TOO much. I should see it coming and stop complaining when book dealers talk about book dealing!

    • May 13, 2015 at 10:12 pm

      It’s definitely that, Miguel!

  • May 13, 2015 at 10:07 pm

    Sounds interesting! Does he talk all about how they kept asking Oscar Wilde questions about The Picture of Dorian Gray at his libel trial and Oscar Wilde was super into it? (And then things took a dark turn but let’s not think about that.)

    • May 13, 2015 at 10:13 pm

      He talks a bit about the trial, but I think he was more coy than that! Oh, Oscar.

  • May 15, 2015 at 6:07 pm

    I like the title that mentions Tolkien better; I am drawn to books about and by Tolkien and also C.S. Lewis. This book souns intriguing.

    • May 18, 2015 at 9:46 pm

      I’d have thought a lot of people would have been more likely to buy a book with Tolkien in the title… curious decision!

  • May 18, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    Oh, dear – another one on the wishlist! A shame about the editing, though …

    • May 18, 2015 at 9:40 pm

      It really was very lax indeed!

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