Trying not to be a collector of David Lindsay

I love books, though I try not to collect them, mostly for reasons of space and money. The impulse, however, is definitely there.

Occasionally I give in. I bought the Small Beer Press limited edition hardback of Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners — having reduced the paperback to a battered wreck because I kept it in my work bag to read at lunchtimes. Kelly Link is, I think, one of the most innovative and interesting fantasy writers of recent times (ditto Thomas Ligotti, ditto Ted Chiang), and her story “Magic for Beginners” just blew me away in the most pleasantly confounding manner. Besides, it’s a beautifully produced book and it came with a free pack of playing cards. So, when I say I try not to collect books, I basically mean I tell myself I’m not collecting them, but buy a few for their collectibility anyway.

There’s one area, though, where, however much I might deny it, I’m definitely forming a collection, and that’s the works of David Lindsay. I started collecting Lindsay first of all because, having read A Voyage to Arcturus and been profoundly mind-zonked by it, I wanted to read all his other books. So it started off as a desire to get a readable copy of each of his novels. He only wrote six (seven, if you count The Witch as finished, though it has never been published in full), and only five of them were published in his lifetime. But it’s still something of a task to get them all. (And that, I suppose, is what collectibility is about. The quest, or the hunt. It’s as close as I get — as close as I want to get — to spearing wild mammoth, or whatever the reductive “we’re all cavemen really” explanation for the impulse to collect things is. Which I don’t believe, anyway.) I still remember the thrill of, in the early days of the internet, finding Blackwells had a secondhand book search service, which promptly found me a copy of The Violet Apple for £20. (And the added thrill of reading it and finding it was a wonderful book.) Then the distinct un-thrill as I followed that up with a request for Bernard Sellin’s Life & Works of David Lindsay, which they found… for £170. (It has since come out in POD paperback, much to my relief.) The crisis point of this particular stage of collecting came when I realised there was only one David Lindsay novel I didn’t have — his least characteristic book, usually called a “potboiler”, The Adventures of Monsieur de Mailly — and that was because it hadn’t (at the time) ever been republished, meaning that it was only available as an expensive first edition. (It has since been published in paperback.) I tried telling myself I didn’t need to read it. But then I thought, “Do I really want to go through the rest of my life knowing there’s a David Lindsay book I haven’t read? Whatever the cost?” I ended up buying it in its US-retitled edition, A Blade for Sale (which was slightly cheaper than the UK first), but still at £{preposterous (for me anyway)}, which remains the most expensive book I’ve ever bought, by a long chalk.

The thing was, by this time, my collecting of David Lindsay had entered another phase. Popping down to Worthing one afternoon, to see a performance of some M R James stories adapted for the theatre, I found a hardback copy of A Voyage to Arcturus (a Gollancz reprint, not the original) for £5 in one of those lovely secondhand bookshops they have down there on the coast. I couldn’t help picking it up. All I had, at that point, was the Ballantine paperback, which has a good cover, but also its fair share of typos. (Though not as many as the execrable Bison Press edition, which was obviously scanned in, OCR’d, and not even properly spell-checked afterwards. So, okay, you get the occasional number 1 instead of a letter l, but you also get the occasional word that has been changed — “comforted” for “confronted”, for instance, which is a significant alteration of meaning. After buying that book I wrote the only letter of complaint to a publisher I’ve ever written. Of course, I got no reply. If they can’t be bothered to proofread their own books, why should they care what their readers think?) Having picked up that Gollancz hardback (it was a really nice palm-sized edition), I couldn’t help buying it. But I could justify it to myself by saying it was merely a nicer edition than than the one I already had. I wasn’t collecting David Lindsay…

I now have fifteen copies of A Voyage to Arcturus. Largely, this is because I run a David Lindsay website, Violet, and started buying a copy occasionally so as to add better cover scans and bibliographic information to the site without having to nick other people’s information and feel guilty. But this is, I think, just a backdoor way of allowing myself to collect David Lindsay. I have, for instance, two German editions of A Voyage to Arcturus, one of which is the neatest-feeling paperback I own (though of course I can’t read it), and which had the unexpected bonus of being illustrated. I also have a German paperback of The Haunted Woman (retitled Fenster ins Frühlicht, which Google translates as “Window in the early light”), and a French Arcturus. I want the two other French editions, partly to solve the mystery of why I’ve found two quite different cover scans of un voyage en arcturus for the same year. My current Holy Grail, though, is the third Canongate edition of A Voyage to Arcturus; I have two, one with a Frank Brangwyn cover, one with a James Cowie cover. There is a poor-quality, black and white scan that’s been floating around the internet since about day one, of a Canongate Arcturus with a Max Ernst cover. I want that most of all. Partly so I can get rid of that horrible little smudgy webcam photo. Partly just to see if it really exists (which I’m beginning to doubt.)

But the thing that, ultimately, stops me from collecting David Lindsay is the next step on from this. What I’ve been buying so far has basically been paperbacks. I bought them at first because they have interesting covers, but also of course because they’re cheap. The next step is a quantum leap in collecting stakes. Because David Lindsay has never exactly had mass appeal, there weren’t many of his books printed, which means there aren’t many around now. First editions of his books are ridiculously rare, and ridiculously expensive when they do appear. The true Holy Grail of any David Lindsay collection is, of course, a first edition Voyage to Arcturus, but that is so far beyond even thinking about, for me… (A quick check with AbeBooks tells me that, to buy a first edition of each of David Lindsay’s six books (including The Violet Apple & The Witch in a single edition), would cost £3,728, and that’s with having to buy a reissue of Sphinx, because there’s no first edition around at the moment. Alright, it’s hardly first-edition Harry Potter, but it’s still a lot as far I’m concerned.)

So, instead of furthering my collection by buying first editions, I’ve distracted that particularly expensive urge by branching out with a little lateral thinking, looking for books and items associated with David Lindsay in some way, with the intention of adding new information to the site. (Not much happens in the world of David Lindsay. I struggle to find a couple of news items a year.) One of the breakthroughs here was a copy of The Radio Times from 1956, when A Voyage to Arcturus was adapted for the radio. I bought it in the hope there would be credits and perhaps a bit of a blurb about the production, but was thrilled to find an accompanying article and an original illustration, as well as a full cast list (which you can find at the Violet Apple site). I doubt there are going to be many finds like that, but it’s fun keeping my mind open for similar oblique approaches to forming a collection.

Far more fun, I suspect, that spending one and a half grand on a battered first edition of A Voyage to Arcturus. I’ll leave that for when my Premium Bonds come up… After all, they’re about thirty-eight years overdue.