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Nabokov's Butterfly: and Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books [Paperback]

Rick Gekoski
1.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

1 Jun 2006
A first edition of Ulysses sold for $460,000 in auction at Christie's in 2002. The price might have upset the union chief, convicted gangster, and major-league James Joyce book collector Dennis Silverman, who had sold his copy, signed and inscribed by the author, for a mere $135,000 ten years earlier. Great books attract all kinds and come to fascinating destinies of their own, as Nabokov's Butterfly amply demonstrates. Here, noted author and rare book dealer Rick Gekoski whose vocation led to the BBC radio series titled Rare Books, Rare People, profiles twenty editions of major books that have passed through his hands and made publishing history, as they have become the legends of rare book collectors. Sued by J. D. Salinger, harassed by Harold Pinter, berated by Ted Hughes who unloaded his personal and passionately inscribed copy of Sylvia Plath's The Colossus, Gekoski is a convivial participant in these histories, including his sale of Mr. Tolkien's college gown. He recalls one day purchasing from Graham Greene his first edition of Lolita, with Nabokov's signature drawing of a butterfly inside, and on the next day he sold it to Elton John's lyricist at a $10,000 profit.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Carroll & Graf Publishers Inc; 1 edition (1 Jun 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0786716541
  • ISBN-13: 978-0786716548
  • Product Dimensions: 11.3 x 17.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 1.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,098,334 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Duplication 12 Jun 2007
Format:Paperback
Tolkien's Gown and Nabokov's Butterfly are the same book under different titles.

One is worth reading.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bibliophile's Delight 5 April 2005
By John D. Cofield - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Nabokov's Butterfly is a short but delightful book about some of Rick Gekoski's most memorable moments as a rare book dealer and collector. I particularly enjoyed the segments where Gekoski describes his personal friendships and contacts with some of the authors. I was amazed at some of the prices he has received for some books, and interested to see how authors go in and out of fashion, so that someone no one bothered to collect twenty years ago can suddenly become highly collectable and extremely expensive. (And enormously profitable to those far sighted enough to collect them ahead of time!)

This book is about both the love of book collecting and the art of selling them. While personally I doubt I could ever bear to sell some of the volumes Gekoski deals with if I were lucky enough to have them in my possession, I enjoyed this glimpse into what has obviously been a fascinating career.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not your typical "bookseller-with-stories" book! 13 Oct 2004
By R. M. Roberts - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Rick Gekoski's book is much better than similar titles in the "let me tell you about the great books I've found" genre. Unlike David Meyer's *Memoirs of a Book Snake* or John Baxter's *A Pound of Paper*, which lean toward autobiography, Gekoski focuses primarily on the twenty books at hand. Each chapter details the publishing history of a classic (*Ulysses*, *The Catcher in the Rye*, *Lord of the Flies*, *Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone*, *The Hobbit*, etc.), including the politics, frustrations, and joys involved in bringing a text to life. Gekoski does provide the occasional book hunter's tale, but keeps his eye on the book at hand and restrains from self-promotion. I did not keep the books mentioned above, but will happily place this book on my shelf next to two of my favorites: Robert Wilson's <em>Modern Book Collecting* and Nicholas Basbanes's *Among the Gently Mad*. A fun and educational read!
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A splendid yet little-known book about 20th-Century English literature and the rare book trade 13 July 2009
By R. M. Peterson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is a stand-out entry in the genre of "Books about Books". The author Rick Gekoski is an American who went to the U.K. for post-graduate education and ended up staying there, first as a university lecturer in English literature and then as a rare book dealer specializing in 20th-Century English literature. In NABOKOV'S BUTTERLY, Gekoski writes about twenty landmark or otherwise rare works of 20th-Century English literature from the two perspectives in which he has particular expertise: rare book dealer and lecturer in English literature. Thus, more so than any other book I can think of, NABOKOV'S BUTTERFLY is a hybrid between a book about the rare book trade and one of commentary about works of literature and noted authors.

As a rare book dealer Gekoski personally handled many of the books or other items (for example, J.R.R. Tolkien's academic gown from Merton College, Oxford) discussed in the book, and he personally knew or dealt with some of the authors or other literary figures who are discussed. To give you a better idea of the scope of the book, here are a few more of its subjects (in addition to "Tolkien's Gown", which was the title of the book as originally published in the U.K.):

* A copy of the original Paris edition of Nabokov's "Lolita," inscribed by Nabokov to Graham Greene (an inscription that includes a characteristically enchanting drawing of a butterfly) -- an item that Greene sold to Gekoski and which he in turn sold to Bernie Taupin.

* The holograph manuscript of William Golding's "Lord of the Flies," which Golding had written in school exercise books and kept in a safety deposit box.

* The archive of biographical materials that Ian Hamilton assembled during his research for a biography of J.D. Salinger, which was suppressed as a result of a lawsuit initiated by Salinger (who then also threatened to sue Gekoski for acting as the broker of Hamilton's archive).

* The American edition of "The Colossus and Other Poems" by Sylvia Plath, inscribed by her to her husband Ted Hughes seven months before her suicide (an inscription that also referred to her father and psychological vexation Otto).

Best of all, Gekoski himself is a fine writer. NABOKOV'S BUTTERFLY is highly literate yet at all times engaging and it often is witty. The book includes some intelligent commentary on several classics or near-classics (e.g., "A Confederacy of the Dunces" and "Animal Farm"), as well as a number of anecdotes about various literary luminaries. An example of the latter is from Gekoski's first meeting with Graham Greene (with whom he became good friends):

"We spent most of [the] next few hours talking about Conrad and Henry James. I think he began to take me seriously when I said that I thought that Henry James was funny, and couldn't understand why no one else did. He agreed wholeheartedly. We drank another vodka, in total critical harmony. 'I'm not in that league,' Greene said, with the conviction of someone who had thought a lot, reached the truth, and did not regret it. 'Conrad and James were Grade A novelists. I'm Grade B.' We had a final vodka in his honour: Grade B was pretty respectable, we reckoned."

In the past two years I read two other items from the "Books about Books" genre -- "Books: A Memoir" by Larry McMurtry and "The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop" by Lewis Buzbee -- that received numerous accolades from other Amazon reviewers but in truth do not hold a candle to NABOKOV'S BUTTERFLY. I fear the book has been poorly handled and under-promoted by its American publisher(s). In any event, if your interests run either to the rare book trade or to 20th-Century English literature, I am confident that you will not regret seeking out and reading NABOKOV'S BUTTERFLY.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bibliophiles enjoy... 2 Feb 2005
By nivloe - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Having just started a course in Rare Books and Manuscripts, I picked up this book on a whim and am happy to report that it is a great read for anyone interested in the goings-on of book dealers and collectors. This book is especially for anyone who takes interest in contemporary authors (the accounts of J.D. Salinger, Graham Greene, Salman Rushdie etc., are fascinating!). It's a book for people who are interested in the details of the book as an object itself -what makes an edition unique or valuable-, and might interest anyone who thinks they may have some old, valuable books sitting around in their basements. Gegoski is a skilled storyteller, it's one of the fastest reads I've done in a long time. I'd definitely read a second volume if he has any more stories to share in the future...
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable 19 Oct 2009
By John Dekker - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This was published in the UK under the title, "Tolkien's Gown & Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books." (Why is it different in the US? Haven't people heard of Tolkien there?)

This book is written by a rare book dealer, and contains stories about 20 different books - concerning either particular copies that the author has handled, or else how the books were written and/or published. Though I had only read five of the books mentioned, but I still enjoyed every chapter.

Gekoski can be somewhat abrasive. He was, in fact, parodied by William Golding, and nearly sued by J. D. Salinger. In his chapter on Sylvia Plath, Gekoski quotes an entry from one of his catalogues concerning an inscribed first edition of her The Colossus and Other Poems, and proceeds to remark that if you "don't immediately feel how exciting this book is," then not only do you not have the makings of a book collector, but he wouldn't like you very much.

He has, however, some very wise things to say: Enid Blyton, he notes, is part of England's cultural heritage, rather than its literary one. "If you like Enid Blyton better than Tolkien, that's fine with me; if you think she is a better writer than Tolkien, you're either a very unsophisticated child, or an idiot."
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