September 7, 2016


Writing this feels like I am taking part in a therapeutic programme designed to cure me of my bibliomania and the first step is to admit my addiction. In my mid-teens I had been reading a lot of Thom Gunn’s poetry. On a dreary, rainy trip to Robin Hood’s Bay in Yorkshire one day on a family holiday, I was rootling round the now defunct Old Chapel Bookshop when I found a small, sickly-yellow volume. Inside, on the beautiful letterpress title-page it read: Fighting Terms / Poems by Thom Gunn / Fantasy Press, Oxford / 1954. I knew this was Gunn’s first full collection. I suspected it might have a value exceeding its £2.50 asking price. I bought the book because I loved Gunn’s poetry; only afterwards did I discover it was one of about 200 copies of the uncorrected first printing and probably worth forty times what I paid for it.

I still own that book. The real frisson of its discovery was not its value, but that I now owned the rare first book by one of my favourite poets, something that only a hundred people could boast, with the remaining hundred copies scattered in libraries across the world. I am interested in the market value of poetry books mainly because it shows me one, albeit very problematic, way in which poetry is prized in a world that often overlooks or undervalues it. Market value in itself is not a very useful gauge of literary merit, however. For example, I own a copy of the Scottish poet Ian Abbot’s only collection Avoiding the Gods. Signed by Abbot to Angus Calder, monetarily speaking this book is worth little more than the £2.99 I paid for it in Oxfam. It is one of the most treasured books in my collection: I’ve never seen another signed copy and Abbot died only months after its publication.

Julian Barnes has written about the fetishisation of books in his Guardian article, ‘My Life as a Bibliophile’, on book-collecting. One of my poet-friends refuses to get any of their books signed, believing that a signature commodifies a book as a collector’s item. Having recently read Dennis O’Driscoll’s essay-cum-memoir collection The Outnumbered Poet, I was pleased to find that O’Driscoll was a poetry autograph hunter much like me, often using a book-signing as a means to engage some of the poets he admired in conversation—or not, as the case seems to have been with the rather thrawn William Empson.

Richie McCaffery
Amang the Buiks
(From ‘The Dark Horse’ 20th Anniversary issue)

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