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The key fact about the true first edition of SSM is that each copy is clearly denominated
as "first edition" on the copyright page; the later printings from 1948 have no printing
indication; printings from later years are so indicated. The second most important point is that
the dust jacket has a price of "$3.00" on the top of the front flap; the price was quickly
raised to $3.95 and then $4.95. Seems simple enough, but there are some bibliographic complications
that have made collecting SSM a bit more challenging:
The first-edition binding appears in two different states: white (or off-white) cloth with black lettering and black cloth with gold lettering. Because many fewer white copies have been found and because all subsequent printings were bound in black cloth, the white copies are thought to be the "first state" binding and thus somewhat more valuable. Unfortunately, finding a white copy does not guarantee a true first edition (see the caution in #3 below).
The first-edition dust jacket also appears in two different states: the presumed
first state, which captions the middle photo on the rear of the jacket as "(Author
second from the left)," and the second state, which changes that caption to
"(Author on the left)." Later printings of the jacket, in addition to the higher pricing noted above, also have a mention of Merton's Catholic Press Association award on the bottom of the rear flap.
So many sellers, particularly on eBay, but even long-established professionals, get so
caught up in the nuances of these different states that they forget to look for the
"first edition" notice. In Portland, Oregon, in Powell's rare book room,
I once found a copy of SSM, with elaborate notations about the second-state binding
and the second-state dust jacket, priced at $225. What the cataloguer failed to notice, however, was that there was no statement of "first edition" on the copyright page - and that that copy was a later printing from 1948, and thus a $10 book. I brought this fact to their attention, but for some reason they didn't seem to appreciate my assistance.
There is a final caution about putative first editions of SSM:
There was a Taiwanese pirate edition of SSM in the 1960s that looks much like the first edition (including the "first edition" statement on the copyright page) in the first-state, off-white binding. The clue there is that there is no price on the jacket and that such copies, both the books and the jackets, just look so shiny and perfect that, with a little experience, you can easily see that they are not first editions from the late 1940s.
I've owned dozens of copies of SSM, but my favorite copy is a first edition in the white-cloth
state. This copy lacked the dust jacket, and so was purchased for a song, but I was able to supply
a first-edition, second-state jacket with little trouble. Its key feature is the ownership signature of
Mildred Walker Schemm
(1905-1998), a late, Montana novelist of some little renown, who in
turn might prove a fruitful collecting target for anyone so inclined.
Harcourt, Brace was also Walker Schemm's publisher throughout the 1940s, so I assume that she received the copy from the publisher or perhaps as a review copy. It is a nice little association, not to mention a partial validation of the copy's authenticity as against the pirate edition.
Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (First edition: New York,
Farrar Straus Giroux, 1983)
Walker Percy's major nonfiction book is a hilarious parody of the 1980s' self-help books,
pop science like Carl Sagan's Cosmos, and TV chat shows (his target then was Phil
Donohue; today, of course, it would have been Oprah Winfrey), but also a serious exploration
of Percy's interests in semiotics and Christian existentialism (there is a small but serious
group of scholars who acclaim Percy [1916-1990] as one of the most important American philosophers
of the latter half of the twentieth century). By 1983, Percy was a major literary personage and his
books - too few novels for a 30-year career - were major events. In other words, many, many
copies (35,000 in fact) of the first edition of Lost in the Cosmos were printed. So it's
not a rare book, and thus I was not troubled some time last year when looking at my shelf I saw
my books by Walker Percy and realized that I no longer had a copy of Lost in the Cosmos. I read it when it was published and enjoyed it, so I thought to myself that I should get another copy of it - not a difficult task.
Within a week of that thought, I was doing a little scouting at a local thrift, and, as I passed
the second bookcase in the back of the store, I saw a copy of Lost in the Cosmos jammed in at the bottom. Ah-ha, I thought, I can make that (re)acquisition right now. The book was a little worse for the wear, but when I opened it up I had the nice surprise to see that it was a first, signed by Percy above his name on the title page, a helpful reminder both that the apparent condition of a book should not be the last word on its value and that a very common $1 book may often hold a $100+ surprise inside.
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