Shakespeare Stuns Antiquarian Book Fair


I mentioned awhile back that I attended the California International Antiquarian Book Fair in Pasadena. Aside from having the chance to brush shoulders with Shakespeare (or at least a passable facsimile), it provided the opportunity to see up close and personal a staggering array of first editions from the world’s leading specialty book dealers.

The experience was akin to walking thorough a museum where all the art works are for sale. A sketchbook by Michelangelo, easily the most expensive piece on display – could be bought by any attendee who happened to have a cool million. My favorite high-end offering though was neither that nor the Shakespeare second folio for $600,000.00, but rather a signed, limited first-edition Parisian pressing of James Joyce’s Ulysses available for a mere 400k.

I kept trying to imagine what the experience must be like for somebody with the deep pockets of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. They could snatch up any of these rare editions like you or I would buy a paperback novel in an airport. I asked one of the salespeople why their wares didn’t belong in a museum rather than in the hands of a private collector, but she just shrugged; I had called into question the very nature and lifeblood of her business.

Each vendor seemed to corner a different niche according to the owner’s whim and fancy. They all had a different story to tell about what had led them into this most rarified of career callings.

Although I had come ostensibly for the fair’s nod to the 450th birthday of Shakespeare, it turned out to be more or less window dressing for what was happening at the individual booths inside.

The seminar on eating habits during Shakespeare’s time, however, proved absolutely fascinating. But that will require a separate post. It happened to be only such seminar on Shakespeare over the course of the three-day event.

In the foyer, the Huntington Library as well as other prominent Shakespeare collections featured samples from their vast holdings. These turned out to be teasers requiring more extensive trips hopefully later in the year – especially to the Huntington located near Pasadena.

I came away from this dizzying array spellbound – but also more than a little sad. So many of the books I had seen were real treasures: a first-edition Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse; a Steinbeck cornucopia; Henry Miller; Thomas Wolfe; and probably the most touching item to cross my path all day: a first-edition Sylvia Plath Colossus with a personal letter by the poet along with Polaroid snapshots.

I would have bought so many totems and icons of my literary hero worship – not, of course, to possess them but (ahem) to take care of them, to be near them. But then I guess I am not alone in this delusion. And the fact is that there are many better suited to the task who have the means and the wherewithal to bear the historical responsibility that such unique objects require.

Perhaps it had been this final note that clung in the air so bittersweetly as I made my way back home.


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