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Dead poet’s society

February 20, 2008 |  4:29 pm

Saturday afternoon, I took my 9-year-old daughter, Sophie, to the 41st annual California International Antiquarian Book Fair at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel in Century City. This three-day festival is like a prom for book nerds: Rare book dealers set up booths with first editions, prints, manuscripts and other ephemera, and people like me walk through to ooh and ah.

Sophie lasted about an hour at the book fair, which was pretty good, I thought. Her favorite item was a first issue copy of the British edition of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone," the novel that launched a revolution. Initially, the book dealer told us, no one thought the Potter franchise had much potential, so the original printing had been only 500 copies, 300 of which had gone to libraries. The asking price for this rarity? $55,000.

And what did I lust after? First a $10,000 copy of Raymond Carver’s rare first book, the poetry chapbook "Near Klamath," which, until Saturday, I had never seen. Then, a notebook that Oscar Wilde had kept while in college, and, perhaps most remarkably, a first edition of Shakespeare’s "Much Adoe About Nothing"--note that Elizabethan spelling--dating from 1600.

There were also countless 20th century first editions: the novels of Faulkner and Fitzgerald, DeLillo and Pynchon, a work of history in which John F. Kennedy scrawled his signature while a student, noteworthy for who had once owned it rather than what it was. This is what’s fascinating about antiquarian books, the odd provenance of these materials, the idea that they have passed through countless hands, survived upheaval and now come to us less as literary artifacts than as the physical remnants of some long-gone and inaccessible past.

Late in the afternoon, Sophie and I would end up in the book arts section of the fair, where fine arts publishers displayed editions of their work. We spent a while checking out the Scripps College Press, which since 1986 has published collaborative books by Scripps students. These books open up like accordions or feature three-dimensional constructions--in one, a bed pops out from the page.

We also tried a working letterpress, set up by the International Printing Museum in Carson. As I watched, Sophie rolled the ink and worked the levers to print out a bit of telling commentary from Charles Dickens:

"The printer is the friend of intelligence, of thought; he is the friend of liberty and freedom in law; in truth, the printer is the friend of every man who is the friend of order, the real friend of every man who can read."

David L. Ulin