I thought I'd start a thread with a bibliographical theme, based on my hobby of collecting books by and about Tolkien. All collections are different from one another; as different as the people who collect! The geordie library is high and deep and wide, reflecting my (sometimes odd) tastes. For example, to look at me, you wouldn't think I'd go in for a pop-up Hobbit book, would you? (it's a book of picturesby John Howe. The Battle of Five Armies is particularly effective).
Every collector has their tales, of how books come into their stewardship. Not ownership - for example, the geordie library has a section of books once owned by Tolkien's friend and fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield. So in a real sense, they are still Mr Barfield's books; I'm just looking after them. Many tales are the same as those told by fishermen, of 'the one that got away'. I'll never forget how close I came to acquiring a copy of 'Songs for the Philologists'. But that's how these things go. One of my favourite stories involves a first edition of the American 'Hobbit'. Not a very expensive book, as it happens - a later printing; no dustwrapper - but still a bit more than I could afford. I was offered it by a bookseller friend of mine, years ago. I saw it again some time later, on the top shelf of a bookshop in London. The owner, whom I'd got to know pretty well, had bought it from my friend (for trade price, of course), and had it priced at one and a half times as much as I'd ben offered it some time before. Still, that's business, and I've no cause for complaint.
The book was out of my range, and over the next eighteen months or so, it stayed on the dealer's top shelf. I'd pop in now and again, and ask to see it. He'd take it down, I'd look at it wistfully, and back it would go. Then something happened. Some books came onto the market from the library of another of Tolkien's friends and fellow Inklings, Colin Hardie. I bought three of them, for only a few pounds. Two of them were of particular interest - Hardie was secretary of the Oxford Dante Society (Lewis, Tolkien and Williams were all members during the forties). These two books were on Dante. One, a translation by an American called Parsons, carries the inscription 'To Mr Charles Dickens esq, with the compliments of the translator'. But the other was even more interesting (to me). This book on Dante was by Maria Francesca Rossetti, sister of the poet and Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He actually designed the book's cover - (thus making this book a Pre-Raphaelite work!) There were three letters tucked inside the book, written from Maria Francesca to her friend, a Mrs Heinemann. The letters are models of mid-Victorian writing; beautifullly calligraphic, and with a lovely turn of phrase. '[The publisher]s have written to inform me that they intend to publish my little book on Dante. Is not that grand?'
Now for the interesting bit - turning to the art section of the geordie library, I took down a couple of books on the Pre-Raphaelites, and found that Maria Francesca was the youngest of four siblings (her sister Christina Rossetti was a famous poet). But what's more, their uncle was Dr Polidori, who one night at a villa on Lake Geneva (IIRC) said to his fellow guests - 'I know, everybody! Why don't we each write a ghost story?' Or words to that effect. So one of the guests, Lord Byron, wrote 'The Vampyre'. And another - Mary Shelley (who was there with her husband, Percy Byshhe Shelley) - went off and wrote 'Frankenstein'.
So, what does this have to do with the early American Hobbit? I was coming to that. The books arrived on a Thursday, and on the Saturday I took them over to London for a bit of 'show and tell'. I was very pleased with them, esp, the Maria Francesca book. I'd grown fond of her through my reading of the history of the Rossetti family, and esp. of her letters. Letters, what's more, written by the hand which had touched the hands of Dante Gabriel Rossetti; and of Christina; and also the hand of her uncle, who'd touched the hands of Shelley and Byron. Not to mention the author of 'Frankenstein'! I showed the book-dealer the books and letters; and explained their provenance. I told him the tale of Maria's uncle's trip to lake Geneva, and he was a bit quiet and thoughtful. In a fit of humour, I offered him the book with the 'Dickens' connection for his Hobbit. He laughed. Then I offered him both books, and he said 'okay'. I left the bookshop with the Hobbit under my arm, wondering whether one of us had made a mistake.
As it happened, it all went ok in the end, for both of us. The 'Dickens' book was a risk; he had to do some research on that, to find out whether it was genuine. But the Maria Francesca book was no trouble; he got on the phone right away to a college in the States which has a collection of letters and other materials pertaining to the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle, and they took it immediately. You see, everyone knows that Dante Gabriel and Christina Rosetti are famous, so their letters come up quite often. But three letters by Maria Francesca - including one refering to the book in which they are preserved - these are rare. So, the early U.S. edition of The Hobbit is in its proper place within the vast marbled halls of the geordie library. And the pop-up book? It has its place, too. But not in the same area. :-)