Surrounded by stacks of books, Don Scriven confessed that his quest to find first-edition copies of fictional works is an expression of his “nerdiness” and his lifelong fascination with the historical.
“My family regards this as a serious disease,” he said glancing at some of his more than 1,200 first-edition copies of novels ranging from the obscure to the famous.
“The Good Earth,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and all but one of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries are part of his collection. So is the very first Pulitzer Prize-winner for fiction, Ernest Poole’s “His Family” (1917) — one of Scriven’s favorite and most valuable books — as well as what many consider to be William Faulkner’s worst novel, “Mosquitos.”
“If it’s a Pulitzer, Edgar or National Book Award winner, I’m inherently interested,” Scriven said. “Apart from that, it’s whether a book got especially good reviews or, sometimes, pure personal preference.”
Just what constitutes a first-edition book is open to discussion, but generally — and Scriven adheres to this definition — a first-edition book is from the first print run of the first edition that was sold to the public. Included in the run of numbers usually found at the bottom of the copyright page is the numeral “1” — at least most of the time. Publishing, like just about every business, has its discrepancies.
According to “Firsts,” the book collector’s magazine published in Tuscon, Arizona, first-print runs can range from as few as 100 or so books to 50,000 copies, depending on the publisher and the author’s popularity.
“First editions are coveted because their print runs tend to be small,” according to the website for Collectors Weekly (collectorsweekly.com). “They’re considered to be the closest a reader can get to the author’s original intent for his or her work.”
A first-run edition of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” published in the United States in 1998, could fetch up to $6,500, while the earlier British edition, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” could bring in six figures, according to Collectors Weekly. Go back in history and the price tag for a first edition of “The Canterbury Tales” or the Gutenberg Bible would reach the millions.
The prizes in Scriven’s collection are far more modest, as he purposely bypassed some books that were out of his price range. He has Ernest Hemingway’s “In Our Time” but not the American author’s far more famous “The Sun Also Rises,” which, he said, “would cost you the price of a house if it was available.”
Scriven pulled out what he considers one of his finest acquisitions, a copy of Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” with a “dropped ‘I.’”
“Here on page 11, the “I” that begins the paragraph has dropped down” to the next line, he said, pointing to a blank space in front of the sentence. “Publishers caught the error and corrected it after about 750 books.”
Scriven, 70, is a native of Washington who attended Tulane University Law School in New Orleans. He worked for a firm in Cleveland, then for the same firm in Columbus before becoming a founder of the Downtown law firm where he works today, Scott Scriven.
In the 1980s, he began collecting first-edition books. He thinks that his first acquisition was mystery novelist Tony Hillerman’s “The Blessing Way,” published in 1970.
“I was blown away by (Hillerman’s) writing talent and what he was accomplishing in explicating Navajo culture in the Southwest,” Scriven said. “I read both history and literature, and his books (are often) twofers for a guy like me.”
He began to scour bookstores in Cleveland and, during family travels, always found time to duck into used bookstores.
“That’s how you did it in the old days — you’d snoop around used bookstores and occasionally you’d score,” he said.
The internet, of course, has changed the face of collecting, noted Kathryn Smiley, who with her husband, Robin, publishes “Firsts” magazine. Scriven has written a number of articles for “Firsts” that display his “scholarship and passion” for collecting, she added.
Scriven’s collection is housed in several cluttered rooms on the third floor of his Franklin County home. “Obviously, I’m out of space,” he said, gesturing to piles of books.
His treasures are kept in dark or low light — sunlight and water are the biggest threats to rare books — and many of the copies are shelved with their spines turned to the wall. The book jacket is just as important as the book itself; a pristine jacket — without tears, scribbles or fading — is a collector’s dream.
Scriven has most of the novels that have been awarded Pulitzer Prizes, but, for example, never went after Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” or Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” because of the high price tags.
Sometimes, Scriven finds autographed copies of the first editions and often, in cursive writing, the name of the original owner.
“That’s a flaw in a book for a collector, but I always wonder about them,” he said. “Who was this person who owned this book?”
He also never acquires a book without reading it – either before or after he’s purchased it. Sometimes he reads the first edition but if it’s particularly valuable, he’ll read a library copy.
“I’ve read books I never thought about reading,” he said. “I guess to do this, you just have to have a bent for history.”