Collecting Orwell: A Kind of Compulsion*

*Originally published in George Orwell Studies

There are few 20th century writers as collectable as George Orwell. Rare book auctions regularly fetch extraordinary prices, especially for his works published in the 1930s. Even secondhand bookshops have a paucity of battered paperbacks on display. Orwell sells and readers hold on to their copies. Darcy Moore reflects on what he has learnt about finding first editions, translations and books of interest for the Orwell enthusiast, scholar or dilettante.

‘Book collecting is an obsession, an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. It is not a hobby. Those who do it must do it. Those who do not do it, think of it as a cousin of stamp collecting, a sister of the trophy cabinet, bastard of a sound bank account and a weak mind.’ Jeanette Winterson (2013)

From seven years of age, I collected books. The sensation of seeing them lined-up on the shelf, in order, was deeply rewarding to my young mind. Knowing you could delve into the worlds they contained, at any time, even more so. Coming from a humble home, each birthday or Christmas presented my main opportunity to add to my collection and I certainly preferred books to Easter Eggs. I never, not once, thought of it as collecting. I needed to have the books to read and re-read. It was my library.

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My first Orwell was a battered copy of Down and Out in Paris and London found in a secondhand bookstore for a dollar when I started university. It is still on my shelf. Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays, Homage to Catalonia and a favourite, Inside the Whale, have been with me from this time at university too. I had been enamoured with Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four at school and bought my own copies for re-reading. Over the years, I steadily added to my library, increasingly buying books inexpensively online. In more recent years, I have relished the procurement of quality first editions, often from far afield, some in much sought-after dust jackets. At first, I purchased books I had not read and am not exactly certain at what point in time this motivation changed and genuine collecting began. Now, I have many different editions of the same book, sometimes, in languages I cannot read. Winterson may have a point.

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Orwell, besides being an author and avid reader, was a working journalist, essayist and book reviewer. His output was extraordinary by any measure and this provides the collector with incredible scope. Journals, like The Adelphi, Horizon, Partisan Review and World Review, are particularly interesting as one can see what else was being published alongside his essays, poetry and reviews. Finding a copy of ‘A Hanging’ by E. A. Blair, in a well-worn 1931 edition of The Adelphi, was particularly special. Orwell’s opinion of contemporary novels, poetry and nonfiction is enhanced by collecting and reading the books he reviewed, too. Lesser-known, if not exactly esoteric texts include the prefaces he wrote to anthologies and novels, including for his literary hero, Jack London. Orwell – obsessive collector of pamphlets – edited British Pamphleteers Vol. 1: From the 16th Century the 18th Century. My bookshelves also include translations of Orwell’s fiction and nonfiction in French, German, Chinese, Hungarian and Danish, many of them first editions.

journals

Orwell fantasised – when he was a teenager and dreaming of being a FAMOUS AUTHOR – about having ‘uniform editions’ of his books in dark blue jackets, He never managed to get that desired colour but was, in the last years of his life, focused on having the works he wished to remain in print standardised. Burmese Days and Coming Up for Air were published in this uniform edition while he lived but it took until 1959 for The Road to Wigan Pier to appear. There is nothing particularly uniform about the appearance of the books and a number of challenges often prevented the text being reprinted as Orwell wished. One imagines that The Complete Works of George Orwell, the twenty-volume collection edited by Peter Davison that includes Orwell’s standard published library and eleven chronological volumes of nonfiction with a further supplementary book of lost works published a decade later, would have net with Orwell’s approval. They look great on the shelf.

Collecting First Editions

Recent auctions at Sotheby’s suggest George Orwell will continue to be an extraordinarily important writer to collectors of first editions for the foreseeable future. A genuine first edition is the first printing of a book anywhere. For example, Down and Out in Paris and London was first printed in the UK by Victor Gollancz, in January 1933. A second, and then a third impression followed in the same month. Technically, all three of these print runs are first editions but collectors will value the first impression much more highly. In June of the same year, Harper and Brothers published the first American edition of this book. It is interesting to note that Burmese Days was the only one of Orwell’s books to be published in the USA first. Orwell’s publisher in the UK was concerned over potential legal action and it seemed safer to test the waters with an American distributor. This novel is unique in having ‘Copyright, 1934, Eric Blair’ rather than the expected pseudonym. As such, it is a genuine first edition of considerable interest to collectors.

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The avid collector may have a number of first editions of the same book. There is the first edition published in a particular country, including translations. There is also the first paperback edition. When a different publisher gains the rights to the book, there is a new opportunity to have a first edition. There may be a first illustrated edition or other printings that are of interest, for example, early editions in Braille. A samizdat edition is one illegally printed, usually in an Eastern European country pre-1989. These editions were produced in unknown numbers using a variety of methods: mimeograph, carbon copies from typescripts or, in later years, photocopiers. There are some unique illustrations to be found in these samizdat editions, including comic versions, especially of Animal Farm. For example, I am currently negotiating a price on a Hungarian samizdat, Allati Gazdasag (Animal Economy). It has uncredited original illustrations on most pages. Collecting always leads to learning and I now have a reasonable idea about the history of samizdat publishing generally, and in relation to Orwell.

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The general reading public know that a bibliography is the list of works referenced by an author while writing their book. Collectors have a different definition. Orwell’s best bibliographer, Gillian Fenwick, provides an invaluable guide to understanding Orwell’s publishing history. Her George Orwell: A Bibliography (1998) is essential for discovering all kinds of important and esoteric facts about the author’s printed output. One wonders how the American publisher managed to misprint the title of Orwell’s second novel. The rather than A Clergyman’s Daughter must have made more sense to them or maybe it was simply a typographical error. Either way, it seems incredibly careless. Orwell’s childhood ambition to have a uniform edition of his works grew more urgent in the last few years of his life. One can see why – with such errors from his publishers. Unfortunately, this uniform edition also suffered problems that were only really corrected when Peter Davison’s project to publish Orwell’s Complete Works resulted in his books being published as intended.

Dust jackets are important to collectors and add immensely to the value of first editions. My understanding is that dust jackets were often abandoned by owners and that libraries routinely removed them. During World War Two the jackets were considered to make the books more flammable and endangered the entire collection held by any institution during bombing raids. There are online businesses that sell facsimile dust jackets. This is particularly useful for the collector who cannot afford the high prices requested for first editions with dust jackets. All of my first editions have facsimile or genuine dust jackets except Down and Out in London and Paris. My UK first edition of Burmese Days has a photocopy made by a very generous bookseller. One can only imagine that taking this dust jacket off a book, on the market for almost £33 000, to photocopy at the library, was one of a calm and very generous soul who understood the nature and needs of the bibliophile. If you have money to invest in first editions, I recommend West Hull Rare Books for all your Orwell needs.

Burmese days

Finding Good Booksellers

For decades, scanning the shelves for anything about or by Orwell every time I was in a secondhand bookshop has been my habit. It is rare to find much. A quick search online confirms little is readily available ‘used’ in Australia. You are unlikely to find any first editions at all. I have discovered many treasures over the years, though, most recently an immaculate first Penguin paperback edition of A Clergyman’s Daughter for $5.00 at a book sale in the Masonic Hall, a kilometre from my front door. There are several very useful strategies for finding books at affordable, often bargain prices, that will assist the collector endeavouring to add to their collection. Luck certainly plays a part, too. Dennis Glover, author of The Last Man in Europe (2017) – a novel about Orwell writing Nineteen Eighty-Four on a remote Scottish island –  gave me the tip that a bookseller in Melbourne had purchased a number of interesting books about Orwell from a deceased estate. It was a goldmine.

Penguin firsts

Many individual bookshop owners have websites with the provision to create a list of ‘wants’ or ‘alerts’. This results in an automatically generated email being sent when the book you are after is catalogued at their site. AbeBooks lets the buyer create ‘wants’ that are very specific. You can search for particular editions, price ranges and even for signed copies using their system. The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America provides an excellent, automated alert service that recently led to me buying a very expensive first edition for about 15 per cent of the price usually charged. The key is responding quickly once the book is listed online. Professional booksellers will hold the book for you. An email received this year is a good case in point: ‘The book was only catalogued today. You got pretty lucky, as three other people have shown interest in it (you were the first so you had first call on it).’ Lurking at the Bibliophile and other mailing lists is a good source of information about books and booksellers too.

If you go to bookfinder.com and search for ‘George Orwell’, ‘first edition’ between ‘1933-39’ it quickly becomes evident that there are very few copies of his early books for this period available, at any price. Genuine first editions are extremely rare. It is rare to find any of these books from the thirties listed under £600 and it is more likely you will be requested to part with £1,000 for a flawed copy. In 2010, a signed copy of Orwell’s first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, with a dust jacket, sold for £101,050 (inclusive of the buyer’s premium). Newspaper reports at the time said it had been 27 years since an edition with a dust jacket had appeared on the market. It certainly was nowhere near that price, as listed just six years earlier by Quill and Brush, in George Orwell: First Edition and Price Guide (2004), which suggested the upper end to be about 10 per cent of that.

These prices are rarely fixed. Often the dealer has purchased the book for much less than advertised, especially if they have had the copy for some time. Contacting the bookseller, especially if there is more than one book you are after, and asking for their best price, often pays dividends. It is not unusual to receive 20 per cent discount immediately. I have certainly purchased books at half the price requested, especially when patient. There are many booksellers who do not have ‘bricks and mortar’ stores and, although highly professional, do it more as a hobby. Often they like chatting about books. One example of having a bit of luck with a book I really coveted was with Inside the Whale, which only had 1,000-copies printed (and some of those were destroyed during the Blitz). I procured one from an elderly collector in South Africa selling his library. He also sold me a doubleplusgood copy of Orwell’s, Homage to Catalonia at well-below market-price. Since then I have bought many other first editions from him that were not Orwell-related, as he clears his shelves.

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Fittingly, the most recent Orwell I purchased was a first edition of Down and Out in Paris and London in surprisingly good condition. It certainly cost more than the $1.25 I paid in 1987 for his (and my) first book. I value them equally. My collection is quite complete with all first editions of the books first published – both in the USA and UK – during Orwell’s lifetime on the shelf. I am particularly pleased to have The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius and Critical Essays with very good, original covers. Many of my later American first editions have very good to fine original dust jackets. I really only have the very rare pamphlet, James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution (1946) along with Talking to India (1943) and Betrayal of the Left (1941) which I had ‘printed on demand’ in India, to collect as first editions.

*Originally published in George Orwell Studies

References and Further Reading

Basbanes, Nicholas (2012) A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal
Passion for Books
, Fine Books Press, Kindle Edition

Blair, E. A. (1931) ‘A Hanging’, The Adelphi, Vol. 2, No. 5, August

Fenwick, Gillian (1998) George Orwell: A Bibliography, New Castle, Delaware and London: Oak Knoll Press & St. Paul’s Bibliographies

Glover, Dennis (2017) The Last Man in Europe, Melbourne: Black Inc.

Gollancz, Victor and Laski, Harold (1941) Betrayal of the Left: An Examination & Refutation of Communist Policy from October 1939 to January 1941: with Suggestions for an Alternative and an Epilogue on Political Morality, Left Book Club (print on demand book)

Meyers, Jeffrey and Meyers, Valerie (1977) George Orwell: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, New York: Garland

Orwell, George and Reynolds, Reginald (1948) British Pamphleteers, Vol. 1: From the 16th Century the 18th Century, London: Allan Wingate

Quill and Brush (2004) George Orwell – First Edition and Price Guide, Quill and Brush

Telegraph.co.uk (2010) Rare signed first edition of George Orwell work sold for £86,000. Available online at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/7519576/Rare-signed-first-edition-of-George-Orwell-work-sold-for-86000.html, accessed on 25 March 2018

Winterson, Jeanette (2013) Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

NOTE ON THE CONTRIBUTOR

Darcy Moore is a deputy principal at a secondary school in New South Wales. He has taught English and History and worked as an academic in post-graduate teacher education at the University of Wollongong. His interest in Orwell began at school, thirty-five years ago, when he was enamoured by Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four. He is currently researching diaries (1876-1905) written by a sub-deputy opium agent who worked with Orwell’s father, Richard Blair, in Bengal and intends to publish insights into this period. He is also working on a book about Orwell for a general readership. He blogs at darcymoore.net and his Twitter handle is @Darcy1968. His Orwell collection can be accessed here.

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1 Comment

  1. Bernadette Coppock:

    It sounds like an extraordinary collection. There is nothing so wonderful as finding an early edition or first edition of a book you love. I also love finding copies that have an inscription from the giver to the receiver; it opens up so many questions about why that book was a gift at that time. Once in a very rare while you stumble on an edition the author has sogned. I love that you are preserving the texts of a man who warns so strongly about the consequences of losing language and books.

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