Monday, January 24, 2011

Collecting Iris Murdoch. An example of book collecting strategy

How do you start a book collection?  There are so many variables at play this simple question is very difficult to answer.  The most basic starting point would seem to be author, topic, genre, and/or era.  Most collections begin because something about the author, topic, genre and/or era seems to demand more.  I love this book and want to read more by that author or I love this topic so much I need to collect everything written about it!  The basic starting point should always be collecting what you love most.  Once you decide to build a collection a strategy is both necessary and sometimes, a serious challenge.

To illustrate some fundamental issues I will offer a basic strategy for collecting the works of Iris Murdoch (1919-1999), a British novelist and Professor of Philosophy at Oxford.  I currently own three works of Murdoch but have always planned to build a Murdoch collection.  Murdoch, who died in 1999 from Alzheimer's disease is best known for her psychological novels. 

This excerpt from offers a nice overview of Murdoch's writing:

"Murdoch's novels typically have convoluted plots in which innumerable characters representing different philosophical positions undergo kaleidoscopic changes in their relations with each other. Realistic observations of 20th-century life among middle-class professionals are interwoven with extraordinary incidents that partake of the macabre, the grotesque, and the wildly comic. The novels illustrate Murdoch's conviction that although human beings think they are free to exercise rational control over their lives and behaviour, they are actually at the mercy of the unconscious mind, the determining effects of society at large, and other, more inhuman, forces. In addition to producing novels, Murdoch wrote plays, verse, and works of philosophy and literary criticism".

During her life, Murdoch published 38 books including 26 novels, 4 plays, 6 works of non-fiction (philosophy) 1 collection of short stories and 1 book of poems. For a complete listing of the titles visit her author page at the impressive Fantastic Fiction website

I own two of her novels,The Italian Girl (with a signed note from the author) and The Green Knight and 1 of her non-fiction books, Existentialists and Mystics:  Writing on Philosophy and Literature.  To build a proper Murdoch collection I will first focus on collecting her novels and non-fiction titles.  I will complete the collection by acquiring her other publications and whatever ephemera I stumble upon, for example, Woman Ask Why?  An Intelligent Woman's Guide to Nuclear Disarmament, three essays by Irish Murdoch, Anne McLaren, and Jacquetta Hopkins Hawkes, published by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, London, 1962.

A basic motivation for collecting Murdoch guides me in making decisions on what to buy and how much to pay.  My motivation is that I want to read all of Murdoch's novels and some of her non-fiction.  Reading and shelving a complete Murdoch collection in my private library is my goal, not collecting for future value.  While I am motivated to read Murdoch, I don't want to just read a paperback edition or electronic edition, both easily acquired, but the actual books as they were originally published.  Today, while Murdoch is collectible and some of her books achieve valuations of $20,000, most of her novels and non-fiction can be acquired for less than $100.  I would like to pay no more than $50.00 for any book and would like to see if I can acquire as many novels as possible for the $20 I paid for The Italian Girl two years ago.

Before I start seriously starting to search and create a master want list I have to make a few decisions:  Should I only acquire first editions published in England, first editions published in North America, or both?  Should I try to acquire as many signed copies as possible?  How do I start?  With a varied collecting focus I have traditionally acquired first North American publication and signed, only if they happened to be signed by the author and within my budget.  Since my main motivation is to read these books I will try to acquire the first editions published in England but if that requires spending more than I would like, I will be happy to acquire the first editions published in America and I will not pay extra for additional signed copies.

Where to start is always a challenge!  In this case, I will start with her first novel, Under the Net, Chatto and Windus, London, 1954 (Viking Press, New York, 1954) and then move on to her Booker Prize winning novel, The Sea, The Sea, Chatto and Windus, London, 1978 (Viking Press, New York, 1978), Booker Longlist, A Fairly Honourable Defeat,1970, and Booker Shortlist novels, The Nice and The Good, 1969, Bruno's Dream, 1970, The Black Prince, 1973, The Good Apprentice, 1985 and The Book and The Brotherhood, 1987.  After that, I will take a step back from novels and acquire her first published book, Sartre:  Romantic Rationalist, Bowes and Bowes, Cambridge, UK., 1953 (Yale University Press, New Haven, USA, 1953). 

I expect that acquiring this first set of titles will take me a year or two since I will take my time, hope for random discoveries while visiting rare and used bookstores, and fitting in this project along with my other book acquisition activities.  My priorities are set by the fact that first-books are increasingly hard to find in fine condition and Booker Award associated books tend to rise in value more quickly over time.  Many people collect Booker Award associated titles and they compete for scarce titles with collector's of individual authors.  If I knock these out first I will then simply complete the collection with the less sought after books, those just associated with Murdoch herself.  A fine plan and one I will enjoy completing!

This is simply an illustration of how to start a collection.  If you are interested in starting a collection whether it be of an individual author or a genre of books, or...., let me know and I will offer a basic strategy, expected budget and staring point.


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