Stopped by local neighborhood bookstore today and thought I scored a couple of huge deals: 1st Edition, with HC/DJ of both James Salter's Light Years and of Thom Jones' Pugilist at Rest. The Salter did turn out to be a steal: $10 for a book that sells for $40+ ...but the Jones? Paid $10 for a book that sells for... $4 online. A major author's first book, a book that won the National Book Award... fetches only $4 for a first edition? Makes the fact that you can get a first of Baghdad Express for a buck a little less depressing, I suppose: but man, where's the love for literature?
As part of a big, but largely amorphous, project I'm working on, I've spent the last couple months annotating a list (and in more limited way, buying) for a would-be collection of 20th century war memoirs and novels. It's been a pretty instructive exercise in literary reputation and fame. A very small number of books are worth more than $10 or $20, even in nice first editions. One or two are worth $100 or more: Tim O'Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone ($1500--and man, I had a chance a couple years ago to pick one up from local bookseller for $200... oops!), Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa ($850). Most? Books like Chickenhawk or Born on the Fourth of July or Paco's Story... four or five, maybe ten bucks--twenty is high-end. Even Michael Herr's Dispatches--an undisputed classic--is commonly found for $20 in a fine first.
I know, you can still get these things in paperback, that I'm not doing these authors any good in buying handsome firsts, & especially that the hardcover first fetish is one of the worst symptoms of book-lover's disease, but come on, people: Don't we all feel a little embarrassed that we'll spend more on a bagel and coffee than on a classic of 20th century literature?