As a mere reader and accumulator of the odd book, I feel at liberty to blame either but since I can’t quite figure out where the blame lies, I will exercise remarkable restraint and merely rant in a random direction: —>> hypermoderns.< <--- Although I cannot recall when I first came across the term, I do remember thinking that this moniker sounded like an appropriate one for the incomprehensible price hysteria accompanying some contemporary first editions. I’m sure that I’m not the only Bullpen reader who finds her/himself periodically reaching a state of bookish apoplexy as I try to figure out why a book published a few years ago with no particular literary merit but which has captured public fancy and which will probably, in due time, disappear into the ether, is fetching ludicrous amounts of money whilst more historically desirable books, from a collecting point of view, seem to merely plod along, slowly gaining value at a barely discernible pace. This current rant of mine has been provoked by a certain copy of a book I came across a few weeks ago – Shantaram, which was priced (1st edition, inscribed) at AU$750.
In 2003, a small Australian independent publisher called Scribe published, as what can only be described as a labour of love and friendship for the author, Shantaram. First time author Gregory David Roberts was described as an ex-career armed robber who had escaped from Victoria’s notorious Pentridge prison then fled to New Zealand and then India, where he helped set up a free health clinic in the slums of Bombay and became a gun runner, supplying mujaheddin guerilla fighters in Afghanistan, all of which lead to some sort of a “spiritual awakening”. Oh, and he found love as well. The book is described as being based on Roberts’ life.
Now I don’t think of myself as a particularly harsh reader but some of the purple prose used by reviewers for this book has almost been as bad as some of the prose in the book itself. He has been described as one of the best author alive, parallels have been drawn with Hemingway, you get the drift. It is a fun book to read because it is a rip roaring adventure story but I don’t know that I’d say that it was of significant long term literary merit. Despite the length (936 pages in my 1st ed), and the fact that it really could have been more rigorously edited (and not just for the almost Mills-and-Boonish descriptions that seem to rear their head periodically), it is a book that was written on a grand scale and that retains the interest of the reader, largely through a powerful sense of the visual elements of his story.
In August 2003, I went to the Sydney launch of this book, which was held at Gleebooks . I’d been going through a book launch phase and because of a personal interest in things relating to the criminal justice system, I thought that I’d attend this one. Roberts was there and eager to promote his story. I was one of a very small minority who were looking at him with a slightly cynical eye. The number of people who were enraptured by him was extraordinary. He has an odd sort of charisma I suppose 🙂
The book was selling for $49.95. Normally, I would not spend this amount of money on a new novel by anyone, let alone a first time author, but for reasons now lost in the mists of time, I bought a copy and queued up for him to sign it.
When it came to my turn, I had a bit of a disagreement with him because I wanted him to just sign and date it, not inscribe it to me. This is my usual approach, as whenever I get a book signed, even if I think the book’s value will not increase, I believe that as I am not Someone Significant for whom the whole “association copy” thing applies, its value will be lessened even further if my name is there. I don’t know what it is with some authors, they simply will not accede to this minor trifling request of mine. In the end I just gave up because there were others waiting patiently. When I saw what he wrote, I wanted to hit my head repeatedly on the nearest hard surface. Preferably until I drew blood. He who was with me at the time found it hysterically funny.
“To Y-, whose name is the music that gleams in her lovely eyes. God bless you and keep you safe.”
In the years since then, I have watched with astonishment as it has been reprinted, come out in paperback, been translated, and then, started production as a film, starring Johnny Depp.
Then I saw the $750 copy.
Then I discovered that there is a copy listed online for US$950. Plus three more between US$400-500.
Okay I give up. What’s the secret? What makes contemporary books like this, the Harry Potter books, and a 1st ed A is for Alibi go for such extraordinary amounts? There’s a signed copy of Alibi for just over AU$6000 if anyone wants a copy. I actually really enjoy Grafton’s books but could someone out there explain the hypermodern thing to me? Surely it can’t just be about scarcity? I honestly do not think that, in 50 years time, this momentum will have been maintained but there is a tiny part of me which fears that it will…
So my question to all the booksellers out there is – Why? And are there really people out there prepared to pay these extraordinary amounts for these books?