By the time Charles Dickens’ career hit its stride, his serialized stories drove readers to distraction in their eagerness for the next monthly installment. In 1841, Americans crowded the docks in New York waiting for ships arriving from England to find out the fate of Little Nell in “The Old Curiosity Shop.” (It was, sadly, not good news.)
Dickens 200th birthday was celebrated around the world on Tuesday; it included a breathtaking reading by Ralph Fiennes, who stars in an upcoming film version of “Great Expectations,” and a wreath-laying on his grave in Westminster Abbey in London by Prince Charles.
The royal tribute was a world away from the author’s childhood. Born to a profligate father whose decent job only provided intermittent comfort to his family, the 12-year-old Dickens was sent to work in a bootblack factory when they hit very bad times. It was a hardship he never forgot, reflected in “Oliver Twist,” “David Copperfield,” “Great Expectations” and “A Christmas Carol.”
“He tells a great story, he creates incredible, unforgettable characters, his dialogue is splendid, his language in general is wonderful,” says John Jordan, professor of literature at UC Santa Cruz and an expert on Dickens. The more than 200 film adaptations of his work, Jordan says, “testify to Dickens’ enduring appeal.”
In his time, Dickens was a bestselling author who became one of the most-respected writers in England, but at first his original serializations weren’t considered literature. They were hardly considered books: The cheap, hand-sized issues were not much thicker than a heavy pamphlet, stuffed with advertisements for health potions, bound in inexpensive blue or green paper, and cost just a shilling. They were throwaway entertainment.
Which is why getting your hands on a real first edition in parts of, say, “David Copperfield” will run you about $12,500, depending on its completeness and condition. But you have a good chance of laying your eyes on a copy at the 45th Annual California International Antiquarian Book Fair, taking place Friday through Sunday at the Pasadena Convention Center. David Brass Rare Books is bringing one.
Exhibitors come from 25 states and countries as far away as the Netherlands, Italy and Australia. They bring rare books and collectibles, literature, children’s books, reference books, maps, manuscripts, autographs and other ephemera, like vintage postcards.
A seller will have a page from an original Gutenberg Bible, listed for $85,000; a fourth folio of William Shakespeare’s work, published in 1685, is for sale at $180,000. Some first editions that will be at the fair are Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” ($25,000); “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien ($18,750); Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat” ($7,400); “Candide” by Voltaire, in French, ($100,000); and Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” published in three volumes ($65,000).
What makes Dickens valuable? Scarcity and originality, and if Dickens signed a book, so much the better. In the 19th century, though, authors didn’t sit at tables in bookstores, waiting to autograph copies of their novels. They’d be signed to people they knew — in Dickens’ case, his banker, an editor and sister. “The more important the recipient, the more valuable the book,” says David Brass, the rare books collector.
Brass had one of those books not too long ago. In 1847, Dickens and the fairy-tale author Hans Christian Andersen (“The Little Match Girl,” “Thumbelina”) hit it off at a social event in London. The visiting author invited Dickens to come by his lodgings a few days later, and when Dickens showed up — carrying 12 of his books as a gift, a heavy load — Andersen was nowhere to be found. Sitting alone on the stoop, Dickens signed each copy “Hans Christian Andersen / From his friend and admirer / Charles Dickens / London Jul. 1847,” and left them there. Later, he got a kind of revenge when he modeled the character Uriah Heep from “David Copperfield” on the tall, lanky Andersen.
Although the books he signed to Andersen were not all first editions, the signature tying the two authors together, and the background story, raised their value. Brass’ had this copy of “Pictures From Italy,” one of Dickens less-remembered books, which he sold to a private collector for $125,000.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, most Dickens collecting was done by two rivals, in a race to secure the best copies of his books they could find. They were Kenyon Starling, who had vast sums of money to spend, and William Self, a former Hollywood actor turned producer. During their rivalry, they came to know and even like each other — so much so that when Starling died, he willed his Dickens collection to Self. When he passed away, the whole kit and caboodle was auctioned by Christie’s and is now scattered.
“We used to sell a lot to other dealers” says Brass, who will buy Dickens books at auction and privately, “but nowadays we’re selling far more to private collectors and institutions.”
One of those institutions is the Huntington Library, located in San Marino, which has one of the world’s top Dickens collections. Industrialist Henry Huntington had a passion for rare books, and the deep pockets to match; his collection formed the basis of the library’s holdings, which focus on Britain and America. Its Dickens holdings includes more than 1,000 autographed letters and copies of all of his novels and works, a number of which in are in their original serial form. “Those are really wonderful,” says Sue Hodson, the Huntington’s literary manuscripts curator. “I love displaying those. Dickens is a crowd-pleaser, not only as a popular writer, but as one of the most important novelists in the English language.”
If you want to start collecting Dickens — or someone more affordable — on Sunday the fair includes a free seminar, Book Collecting 101. Another Sunday event is the “Antiques Roadshow"-style “Discovery Day,” where experts will take a look at up to three of your most valuable books. Did you know actress Sarah Michelle Gellar collects rare children’s books? Some will be on display, and film director-producer Tony Bill will be on hand Saturday to talk about his passion for book collecting.
Does the advent of ebooks put book collecting in jeopardy? “The real collectors are very, very passionate,” says Brass, who has been in the business for 45 years, in an interview at his office in Calabasas. “People talk to me about books, the Kindle, this that and the other.”
He pulls out a copy of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” with the woodcut illustrations, printed in 1561. “This book is 550 years old. I assure you, in 550 years time, there’ll be no Kindles. That’s why these are not at any risk. This is it. This is the real thing.”