On the Accumulation of Multiple Copies of the Same Book

In an article in the July 12, 2012 New York Review of Books, Michael Chabon writes that he “acquired five copies, of various size and vintage” of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake during the year that he worked his way through the novel. I love this little detail because I, too, find myself obsessively buying different printings of books that I treasure. Reading isn’t just about encountering ideas in a book, it is also about interacting with a physical object (which is yet another reason why ereaders are evil), and I like that Chabon acknowledges this by ensconcing himself both physically and mentally in the book.

Books that I keep buying include

James Baldwin’s Another Country, which is one of the best novels I’ve ever read about both race and LGBT issues. I think it is Baldwin’s best novel–more powerful than Go Tell It On The Mountain, more sincere than Giovanni’s Room. I have it as an old Signet paperback and in the Library of America’s collection of Baldwin’s early novels, and once I get to teach it I’ll pick up the current Vintage paperback.

Samuel R. Delany’s novels, the old cheap paperbacks (especially the Bantam ones) of which I encounter fairly frequently in used bookstores, and always buy because they are so aesthetically appealing even though I have most of them in their most recent printings from Wesleyan University Press or Vintage.

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, which, alongside Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, is the cornerstone of American literature, thus one can never have too many copies of it. I have the Penguin edition, a hideous teaching edition from Pearson-Longman, and two beautiful collector’s editions, one from the Folio Society and one from the Franklin Library.

Frank O’Hara’s poetry: I have the indispensable Collected Poems edited by Donald Allen, which was the first of O’Hara’s books that I bought, and I also have the 2008 Selected Poems edited by Mark Ford, as well as O’Hara’s two major original collections, Meditations in An Emergency and Lunch Poems.

Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which of course was published in six different editions over nine printings during Whitman’s lifetime. I have the Penguin printing of the 1855 edition (the best edition), the Signet printing of the 1892 edition, the Library of America volume which includes the 1855 and 1892 editions plus much of Whitman’s prose, an illustrated edition by Heritage Press (I think it’s the 1855 edition, but I don’t remember off of the top of my head–I’m writing this at my office and the book is at home), a faux facsimile of the 1855 edition by Oxford University Press (it reproduces the exact typsetting formatting of the original, but is not a photographic facsimile), the New York University Press variorum edition that collates all six original editions, and a selection of poems which draws on all of the Leaves of Grass editions edited by Galway Kinnell and published by Ecco that I use for teaching because it includes “Poem on the Proposition of Nakedness,” which did not appear in the 1855 or 1892 editions.

Also, on a somewhat different subject, shortly after reading Chabon’s article, I encountered an article by Louis Menand in the July 2, 2012 New Yorker about biographies of Joyce. I haven’t thought deeply about Joyce in years because I’m not really a fan of his work (I recognize its historical significance, but it feels dated to me), but it always strikes me when I encounter several random references to a person or book within a short period of time. It feels uncanny. I find that this happens to me several times a year, usually with someone whose work I am not familiar with (Marina Abramovic is one example from several years ago, and Antonin Artaud is a more recent one). It is like the universe is telling me that it is the right time in my life for me to encounter the person in question in order to learn from them, and this is often the case–the timing is perfect. I don’t really have the time this summer to give Ulysses the attention that would be necessary for a re-read of it, but these recent encounters with Joyce make me stop and ponder.

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