Monday, September 01, 2008

Book Review: "Nabokov's Butterfly"

Rare book dealer Rick Gekoski's Nabokov's Butterfly (published in England as Tolkien's Gown) is a delightful collection of short essays centered around various important books of the twentieth century, from Joyce's Ulysses to Kerouac's On the Road to Rowling's Harry Potter series.

Gekoski's anecdotes about his experiences with these books, their authors and their (sometimes bizarre) publishing histories are enlightening and amusing from first to last: he sold Graham Greene's copy of Lolita to Bernie Taupin the day after he acquired it (and, it seems, has regretted it since); he played a bit-part in J.D. Salinger's famous lawsuit against would-be-biographer Ian Hamilton (and dared to suggest a hilariously appropriate resolution to the same); and he tries to get at the heart of such important bibliophilic questions as why it is that people find pristine copies of certain books so utterly irresistible.

One of the (not uncommon) moments at which I laughed out loud while reading this book was after Gekoski quoted his catalog description of the copy of Sylvia Plath's The Colossus and Other Poems inscribed from Plath to her husband Ted Hughes just months before her death. Following the quote, he writes "If you don't immediately feel how exciting this book is - if you haven't in some form or another, just whispered 'that is so fabulous!' to yourself - I'm afraid you don't have the makings of a book collector. I'm not even sure I would like you very much." Harsh? Perhaps, but probably quite fair.

A nicely-designed volume, with beautiful endpapers featuring color images of the books discussed within, this is a highly enjoyable book from one of the leading lights of the current trade in modern literary fiction.