DeFlip Side #128: Dream Books

DS128.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

As any book collector will tell you, we all keep a mental list of authors and dream books that we hope to discover in our travels. And I recently stumbled upon the third-highest book on my dream list, which now holds the distinct honor of being the second-greatest book in my library.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Every year at the I-Con Science Fiction convention here on Long Island there’s an exhibitor who deals mainly in rare first editions and whose prices are so exorbitant that I usually never make it past his $3 paperback table.

But browsing through his hardcover specials at the last con, I was delighted to find a $10 first edition Jack Cady book called McDowell’s Ghost. Cady is high up on my mental list, and nearly impossible to find. At the time, I only owned two other books by the late author. So I had to find out if the dealer had any other titles, sticker shock be damned!

I was also bolstered by a great experience I had with a rare book dealer in California last summer which bagged me some cool Lord Dunsany titles. I told you all about that in the DeFlip Side episode called “Darth Libris.” Before my California trip, I had always shied away from book antiquarians because I figured they’d be a derisive lot, embodying the worst traits of museum curators and school librarians. But to my delight I discovered that rare book dealers are not only approachable, but that they actually like to talk about books and are oftentimes the only other people in the universe who know about the obscure authors I’m seeking. Go figure.

And the dealer at I-Con was no exception. After asking him about other Jack Cady titles (which of course he didn’t have) I began peppering him with my go-to list of hard-to-find writers: E.T.A. Hoffmann, Thorne Smith, and the aforementioned Lord Dunsany. And that led to my second find of the day.

He enthusiastically brought me over to his Arkham House collection, a publisher primarily known for its H.P. Lovecraft titles, editions highly sought after by collectors. But they published more than just Lovecraft. To wit, he handed me the first U.S. edition of The Fourth Book of Jorkens by Lord Dunsany, published by Arkham House in 1948, one of only 3118 copies.

Jorkens is a character Dunsany featured in more than 150 short stories over more than 30 years, an old drunk who swaps fantastic tales of his travels for a free round. Jorkens stories ran the gamut from Fantasy to Horror to Science Fiction and were hugely popular. And here was a first edition collection in fairly good condition that I would probably never find again.

As expected, the cost made me squeamish, but here’s another thing I’ve learned: used booksellers want to move their product and they’re happy to deal, especially with fellow book lovers. So I asked if he could give me a break on the price. To my delight, he quoted a number lower than the one I was thinking. Sold.

So I hit him with the book at the very top of my mental list—my ultimate dream book—a first edition copy of Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. He laughed and told me that he had only handled one copy in his entire career. And even if he did have one and had been willing to give me a good deal, I’m sure it still would have been out of my league. They sell for $1,000 and up.

So I just went on browsing, eventually dragging a box out from beneath the displays, and there it was. A dream book. No, not a Wizard of Earthsea, but close. I had found the third highest book on my list, a first edition copy of the third Earthsea book, The Farthest Shore. It was the first one I’d ever seen of any of the original trilogy and I picked it up reverently. Aside from wear normal for any 40-year-old book, it was in terrific condition. I held my breath and checked the price—and was both surprised and disappointed. It was significantly cheaper than I was expecting, but still too rich for my blood.

I immediately asked the dealer about it, and he told me he hadn’t had a chance to put it out yet. But I suspect he had actually forgotten about it, otherwise he would have mentioned it during our Earthsea conversation.

In any event, I just didn’t have the money he wanted. Not with me anyway. I looked at the book wistfully, put it back in the box, and went about my con. Okay, I really went on to book-mope my way through the rest of Friday night and all through Saturday. If you want to know why Earthsea—and particularly it main character Ged—is so important to me, I’ve gone on about it ad nauseam. Check out the show “Earthsea and Me” for all the sordid details.

My Earthsea first. What's not to dream about?

Anyway, when I told my wife about the book, she insisted that I buy it before it was too late. She knew I’d be kicking myself otherwise, and I suspect she didn’t want to endure the rueful litany of “if onlys” that I’d surely be spewing in the months to come. Boy does that woman know me!

So I manned up, grabbed all the money I was willing to spend, and—like Ged turning the tables and pursuing his shadow—headed back in for some Sunday morning brinksmanship. I’d offer him my price, and if he took it, great. If not, at least I’d given it my best shot.

Now here’s where I’m supposed to tell you a sexy story about hanging tough and haggling the dealer down to a ridiculous price, or getting into a bidding war with another Earthsea enthusiast. But the simple truth is that the book was still there—albeit on display now—and the dealer knew exactly why I had come back. He quoted me a price well below my maximum, and I talked him down another $5 and got him to throw in a protective plastic cover for the dust jacket. So much for my game face.

Ged: The titular "Wizard of Earthsea" and a very understanding Archmage.

And now I can scratch that book off my dream list, which I’m proud to display as the second greatest book in my library—so far, anyway. There’s still A Wizard of Earthsea to find, as well as the second Earthsea book, The Tombs of Atuan. Though if I ever nab Tombs, it’ll be tied with The Farthest Shore.

So what’s the greatest book in my library, you ask? My own Quantum Leap novel Foreknowledge of course! Or, rather, a very special copy of Foreknowledge that I got signed by Quantum Leap star Scott Bakula, show creator Don Bellisario and writer/producer Debora Pratt. Sure, Dean Stockwell has yet to autograph it (and I may be running out of time on that front) but whether he does or doesn’t, that copy of my book will forever hold pride of place on my shelves.

I’m sure that Ged would understand.

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