In January, I shared an updated tour of my bookshelves. While my collection is smaller and a bit more selective than it used to be, I still have a fondness for whatever catches my eye. Often this includes less recent books. Living in a world where classics are available digitally or in a hundred different editions is amazing, but something about a “true” classic—something with wear or age to it—feels different. For my purposes, I’m only sharing what I have pre-1970 in my Bramford collection (since I have others stashed away). We’ll go from newest to oldest to build some level of hype.
SELECTED POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON edited by James Reeves (4th printing, 1970)
This has been a part of my collection for so long I don’t even remember where I originally bought it from—whether it was thrifted or a garage sale or what. It was one of the first poetry books I owned that wasn’t for children and I know I picked it up because we’d read a few of her poems in my English classes and I was fond of them. Plus, compared to the typical Shakespeare or Wordsworth, I wanted to explore what poetry could mean to a woman and to someone who wasn’t always writing about romance. This book was originally published in London and the cover price was 9s/45p. How it made it to my side of the world, I can’t quite be sure.
ROSEMARY’S BABY by Ira Levin (7th printing, 1967)
You know a book is a bestseller when it’s in its seventh printing eight months after publication. Since this is one of my favorite books and I collect different editions, I was pleased to find this close-enough-to-first at Grassroots Books. It cost me under $10 to buy and the condition is fantastic. I love the iconic dust jacket of The Bramford, especially compared to other editions which focus more on the pregnancy or baby aspect of the story. Here, the building looms in a Gothic and menacing way. The book was originally $4.95USD; first editions (especially signed) often go for hundreds online so it’s a great book in terms of collecting.
THE PORTABLE FAULKNER by William Faulkner (Revised edition, second printing, 1967)
“A Rose for Emily” has been a touchstone story in my development as a writer so, when I found this collection of Faulkner’s works at Grassroots Books during a sale, I had to see what else was going on. Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha County would later come into play during my MFA as I studied the stories from Go Down Moses, many of which are also in here. This book fulfills the expectation of being portable since it’s a thick pocket-size, perfect for pulling out in the hot summer afternoons. The original cover price was $2.45USD and it’s a pretty hefty book but feels more personable than many of the redesigns throughout more recent years. That personality is helped by the occasional annotations from a previous owner.
THE OREGON DESERT by E.R. Jackman and R. A. Long (1st edition, 1964)
Was I overwhelmed on my first trip to Powell’s Bookstore in Portland? Yes. Did I still have enough sense of mind to explore their Oregon section for research or sources for my MFA thesis? Also yes. I found this gold mine and perfect addition to my collection there. This non-fiction collection is special because it captures the region that I’m from, mentions my hometown and people, and really gets at what makes the area its own separate from Western Oregon. I paid $20 for this copy but since the cover is laminated and it came with a newspaper clipping, I’d say it’s well worth it. The book hasn’t been out of print since publication so the information isn’t hard to find, but there is something special about that midcentury book design and knowing it’s a first edition.
WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? by Henry Farrell (Avon Books, 196-?)
For most of my lifetime, books with film tie-in covers were a non-issue; I didn’t buy them. However, when I discovered film-to-novel adaptations for horror novels or classic stories with iconic movie covers (rather than awkward posing), I was more open to the idea. The film adaptation of Farrell’s 1960 novel is one of my favorites and I was surprised to discover this while cleaning my grandmother’s house in the summer of 2019. It must have been a loan from her sister at some point because my grand-aunt’s name is written on the inside; I sincerely hope they weren’t trying to relate to Jane and Blanche. While the publication year states 1960 on the inside cover, the film wasn’t released until 1962 so I think there has to be some error. The cover price was 50 cents—an absolute steal for some fun terror.
PSYCHO by Robert Bloch (2nd Crest printing, 1960)
My collection of horror books with movie covers or adaptations is rather small, but this is—obviously—a pivotal one. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho has been a big part of my evolution through OcTerror, my research for the past two years, and so much more than that. Bloch’s novel is slim but still carries the scares from the film. I love the cover design and how it incorporates elements from the film but doesn’t give too much away for unsuspecting readers. The warning on the back is reminiscent of a Hitchcock trailer—just enough to build suspense and warn you of the danger ahead. The original cover price was 35 cents which is a good for mass production and consumption.
THE SCARLET LETTER by Nathaniel Hawthorne (Pocket Library Edition, 9th printing, 1958)
In terms of classics, Hawthorne’s novel of Puritan fear and injustice is early American tradition. I didn’t want a standard edition or cover in my collection. Luckily, I happened to find this captivating midcentury design at Grassroots during a sale. The minimalist design using the titular letter with a keen eye for color blocking makes it almost seem like those Penguin cover designs from the 2010s, but the size and feel of it are of its time. Generally, my advice to most people—especially those who want to read or are looking to get into ‘classic’ literature—is to find whatever works for you. If it’s an older, dog-eared copy then that’s perfect or a newer edition with scholarly footnotes. This just happens to be the perfect letter for me.
NEW VIKO COOK BOOK (1936)
I keep a close eye out at Grassroots for hidden gems and this was certainly one. Not only is this a Depression-era cookbook from an aluminum company, but the previous owner obviously put a lot of their heart and soul into it. It included clippings from newspapers, handwritten recipes, and recipe cards. While a lot of general recipes get improved on or change over time, something about the thriftiness and ability to make do with less of this era was what I was looking for (since I live on a tight budget). Does it use much seasoning? Absolutely not. There’s always room for improvement. However, I’m glad that I’m able to cook and taste history, and take care of someone’s memory in my own way.
THE COMPLETE SHERLOCK HOLMES by Sir Anthony Conan Doyle (1930)
This was another hidden gem, especially because it didn’t have a dust jacket and the title was almost completely worn off the spine. However, I must’ve sensed something special about this thick tome, because I opened it to find Sherlock Holmes. This was shortly after the BBC Sherlock craze had gotten into true swing and I was familiar with the Downey version as well as any number of other adaptations, but to have the actual stories at hand was something great. It only cost me $1 and it’s organized with my other ‘complete’ sets like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. This is not an easy book to hold or use for a bit of light reading, but it’s intriguing all the same.
STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE by Robert Louis Stevenson (F.M. Lupton Publishing, ~1900)
My grandmother had a lot of books hidden away in her house beyond what was obviously on the bookshelves. To the unassuming eye, this clothbound, worn, and used copy could have been trash. However, I’m always intrigued and was purposely looking for treasures and I was happy to find a copy of one of my favorite Gothic stories. This was at the height of the penny dreadful and Gothic period so finding an old copy in the middle of rural Oregon was like discovering a kindred soul a hundred years ago. Most interesting of all is the handwritten note in the back where a farmer seems to be drafting a sale notice for a ranch. The copy is in delicate condition so reading it is, perhaps, not wise, but it’s still something I’m happy to have on my shelves.
SONGS FOR THE SANCTUARY (2nd edition, 1867).
The oldest book in my collection is 155 years old. I bought it for $1 at Grassroots because it seemed interesting and ancient, and how often do you come across antique hymnals? In a serendipitous turn of events, this hymnal helped inspire a story that would inspire my MFA thesis which would take me to where I am today. The spine is cracked (partly from me paging through it so often for story titles) and the pages are worn from me and other patrons. The hymnal is text-only compared to later editions which also contained musical notations. It is at once a spiritual guide in the traditional sense and also in an unusual one. Who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t bought this old book that day?
You’ll note that most of the books in my collection are either gently used, worn, or practically falling apart. I care more about the design or the story itself than the inherent worth of an edition later down the line. I’m not in the bookselling business and, as of now, my collection is only for myself.
If you’re interested in acquiring older books, the guidelines are relatively simple (and personal). Generally, anything older than 20 years can be considered vintage. So, books published before 2002 are now something a little more special. If books are mass produced they usually, but not always, are easy to find but not worth much if you’re re-selling. Exceptions do happen as we’ve seen with the resurgence of interest in horror paperbacks from the 1970s and 80s. You should always check the internet. This not only applies because someone could be selling it for cheaper or in better condition, but because it might not be worth anything even if it’s 100 years old. Learning how to read the publication page and how it can vary over time will be helpful, because a first edition is different than a seventh printing is different than a reprint.
Most of all, buy what you want. If you prefer newer books or e-books then you do you. If you want all your editions of the classics to match then that’s fine too. All that really matters is finding what sparks joy.