Inspiring Older Readers
Tolkien’s Gown & Other Stories of Great and Rare Books by Rick Gekoski
For book collectors or anyone interested in second hand and antiquarian books, Rick Gekoski probably needs no introduction. He’s as close as that odd world of book dealing gets to a celebrity but despite his profile in literary circles, I’d guess that he’s not at all well-known to a wider public. So it’s probably as well to give you a short profile and rather than do that myself, I have The Guardian ( for who Gekoski writes periodically) to thank for this smart little summary:
“Rick Gekoski is a rare book dealer, writer, and occasional broadcaster. An American who came to England in 1966, he taught English Literature at the University of Warwick from 1971-1987, and has published books on Joseph Conrad, William Golding, Premiership football (Staying Up), a collection of essays entitled Tolkien's Gown and Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books (based on his BBC Radio 4 Series Rare Books, Rare People), and Outside of a Dog: A Bibliomemoir. A second series of Lost, Stolen, or Shredded: The History of Some Missing Works of Art was broadcast on Radio 4 in 2009. He has founded two private presses, The Sixth Chamber Press and The Bridgewater Press, which issue finely printed editions of leading contemporary novelists and poets. In 2005 he was one of the judges for the Man Booker prize, and he is currently chair of the judges for the Man Booker International prize 2011.”
What this doesn’t tell you is that Gekoski has made his name – along with a very decent living – dealing only in the higher end of the book collecting market. For the most part his focus is on 20th century ‘greats’ and he’s even more excited by winkling out seemingly lost or forgotten early works or getting his hands on fabulous ‘association copies’ – books that have been signed by the author with a dedication to someone else (preferably another star in the literary galaxy).
In Tolkien’s Gown this is firmly the territory we’re in. It’s part appreciation of great books, part literary criticism and part book dealer insider stories. And because of what he deals in, inevitably there are stories relating to Gekoski’s relationship with authors – in particular Graham Greene, who he seems to have known well and William Golding, with whom he had a distinctly more frosty association.
He has what I think I’d generously call a louche style of writing – full of knowing nods and winks and sly half deprecating remarks. It’s a writing style that at its best is putting it’s arm around your shoulder and including you as a fellow insider but which can easily tip over the other side and become a bit smug, self-satisfied and full of privileged conceit. I have to be honest and say that he doesn’t always stay on the right side of that line.
Nevertheless, there are some stonking essays here that were clearly written with one eye on their being broadcast on the radio. My absolute favourite has to be the one titled, Lord of the Flies that chronicles Gekoski’s dealings with William Golding who comes across as a splendidly irascible and neurotic character who treats the book dealer with the sort of frosty, paranoid wariness you’d afford to a house visit from Michael Gove.
There are 20 short essays or pen portraits here and, if you’re in the 20th century literary lovers club, the old saying is true and there really is something here for everyone.
I would have liked more of the book dealer side which seems to me to raise the essays to a different level when he’s got something specific to say about collectability or about the often chequered publication and production details of the first editions. I’m less interested in his literary critical assessments – there’s nothing wrong with them but they’re not going to add a fat lot to your sum of knowledge if you’re the sort of person who’d pick this book up in the first place.
What I find most mysterious and intriguing is the lack of information Gekoski gives us about just how he got into this business at the level he did. His introduction tells us that as a student he rumbled that he could sometimes buy a book and sell it straight on for a profit and that this led him eventually to resigning his lecturing job at Warwick in favour of being a self-employed book dealer.
“From the beginning, I was lucky. Whereas most rare book dealers acquire a large stock, mostly of books in the lower price ranges, I discovered – which rather surprised me – that I was good at dealing with expensive books. I don’t know why this should be, why I can often see that a book priced at hundreds or thousands is still underpriced….. In my business I have concentrated on acquiring the finest works by those modern writers whom I actually know about…”
All well and good and I have to say, despite the success he’s made of it, this is not an original or particularly revelatory insight and plenty of others (including me) have had a similar set of aspirations and ambitions. What we’ve lacked is the one thing Gekoski seems most coy about – money. He makes it sound as if he leapt from a simple university lecturer’s salary to high-end book dealing in a single bound with no thought to money. That simply can’t be true. Come on Rick – tell us where the loot came from………