May 15, 2009
Always Look Twice: Two More Parables
Yesterday afternoon I got an email titled “FW: Congratulations!” Being 99% sure this was another internet lotto spam, I marked it for deletion. But something stayed my hand and I decided to give it a quick glance first. You know, just in case.
“Did you get my previous email of May 5th?” the email asked. I scanned the attached email. “Congratulations!” it read, “You have won FIRST place in the National Book Collecting Contest!”
After picking myself up off the floor I spent the next ten minutes running up and down the stairs viewing the email on two different computers just to be sure. In the meantime my much more level-headed husband opened a bottle of wine and phoned our families for me to give them the exciting news. This was the first-ever National Book Collecting Contest and the only year I would ever be eligible (next year I will be too old). To say I am thrilled beyond description would still be a gross understatement.
So in celebration of my now-prize-winning collection I thought I’d tell the story of one of my favourite books, the tacky and overlooked Easton Press edition of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas père.
Easton Press published in the 1970s a series called “The 100 Greatest Books Ever Written”, reprints of book club editions bound in leather and pressed with gaudy gilt decoration. These are the kinds of books you might want to decorate a film set with, or maybe your show-library. I doubt very much that many people actually read them, and I certainly believe that Easton Press paid somewhere between little and no attention to picking, editing and publishing them. I recently saw another copy of the book at the Toronto Book and Paper Show and considered seriously buying it in order to have it made into a purse.
So why is this my favourite book? Because of the “portrait of the author”:
I don’t know a huge amount about much, but I do happen to know a lot about the author of the Three Musketeers and that ain’t him. In fact, I recognize the chap in that painting. It’s this guy:
Alexandre Dumas fils, the son of the author. Alexandre Dumas père, the author of The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo and hundreds of other gems looks like this:
It’s a forgivable mistake to make. I’m sure the artist went to the library for a reference photo, found young Dumas and went to town, having no idea that there were two Dumases. But what tickles my funny-bone is that for forty years, no one noticed. Not the artist, not the editor, not the publisher, and not a single reader, seller or collector. Why? Because of the nature of the edition: it was never intended to be read by anyone who had a clue. The target audience is people who want to be spoon-fed a library of “classics” that look fancy, without having to know anything about literature themselves. The books are designed to look good on a shelf, not to be read and enjoyed.
I admit it, I have an odd sense of humour. But I love this. I just love it. What effort and expense to create a book for looking at. Without a second care for the contents!
The history of publishing is full of quirky little discoveries like this, though. It’s the whole fun of collecting: finding those things that are special, that tell a story beyond the narrative printed on the page. Thrilled as I am to have won the inaugural contest, I am almost equally thrilled that one has been established. There is a pleasure to be had here that more people – especially of my generation – could partake of. And what excellent incentive!