7 Rare Book Classics To Excite the Literary Minded

7 Rare Book Classics To Excite the Literary Minded

The New York International Antiquarian Book Fair may be canceled this year, but online opportunities for used books abound.
The New York International Antiquarian Book Fair may be canceled this year, but online opportunities for used books abound.

Throughout the year, Sotheby’s offers some of the finest rare books, history books and nonfiction books on the market. Selling used books goes all the way back to Sotheby’s founding in 1744, when Samuel Baker transformed his bookselling business into an auction house, one soon entrusted with the most significant libraries of the 18th century.

Books offer a deep physical connection to a specific subject matter. Often, it’s the book-collecting journey – the search to find the exact edition of your old book – that proves the most rewarding part of the experience. “How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!” wrote Walter Benjamin.

The rare books for sale online from Sotheby’s Buy Now platform represent a diverse range of the most beloved authors of the literary canon. Lose yourself in the emotive power and presence of poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the satirical writings of Mark Twain or the whimsical fancy of Dr. Seuss. Let’s take a closer look at some extraordinary editions worthy of the passionate bibliophile.

The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley

“Some of the loveliest lyrics in English, together with longer poems unsurpassed in beauty and grandeur, came from the pen of this visionary,” wrote Stanley Kunitz and Howard Haycraft in their reference book of 19th-century authors. The celebrated Romantic-era poet, radical thinker and outspoken atheist is responsible for poems including “Ozymandias,” a haunting warning against the dangers of hubris. This unmistakably beautiful and much sought-after Kelmscott edition of Shelley’s poetic works numbers in an edition of 250, with other copies residing in such illustrious collections as the Morgan Library. The publisher, Kelmscott Press, was founded by pre-Raphaelite painter, designer, poet and polymath William Morris in 1891. Inspired by the craftsmanship and ornamental detail of medieval illuminated manuscripts, Morris created beautiful books prized for their decorative richness, quality of materials and meticulous craftsmanship during a time when low-quality, mass-market printing was at its peak in industrial Britain. Morris’s books were highly considered reminders of style and taste that soon inspired other printers to return to form.

The Writings of Mark Twain

In 1935, Ernest Hemingway declared, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” The influential writer, satirist, humorist and critic explored and challenged ideas of American identity, sparking debate since first publication. This striking Harper & Brothers’s memorial edition of his writings, published in 1929, is the rarest of the uniform editions of works by the great American author. The blue Morocco volumes are finely bound by Henry Stikeman, the renowned New York binder whose own career helped set the standard for fine bookbinding in America at the turn of the 20th century. Each set includes a special and previously unpublished manuscript page handwritten by Twain. This set’s page is a memorandum of daily tasks (“Haircut at 26”...“Safe Dep. & leave stock & make list”) as well as notes for his last will and testament. Favorite classics such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Prince and the Pauper are included alongside Twain’s letters and speeches, autobiography and four-volume biography by Albert Bigelow Paine. Many of the volumes feature appreciations by other prominent authors, including his friends William Dean Howells and Brander Matthews. With 37 volumes, this exceptional set provides ample room to prove Twain’s adage: “If books are not good company, where will I find it?”

"On the Road" by Jack Kerouac

Since its publication in 1957, a myth has surrounded the creation of Jack Kerouac’s landmark novel On the Road – that he wrote the Beat Generation classic in a marathon three weeks. “That’s not writing; that’s just typewriting,” Truman Capote famously said. Though Kerouac typed the entire first draft on a continuous roll of paper, he would take the next six years revising it for publication. Kerouac based the story on his own travels across the United States, with characters modeled on William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. As a bestseller, On the Road propelled Kerouac to celebrity, with reviewers hailing him as the voice of his generation, and as such, true first editions of the cultural touchstone are quite valuable. Available in a handsome first edition by Viking Press, this is an excellent choice for any book lover, especially one in search of adventure on the open road.

"Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s romantic second novel opens with one of the most famous first lines in literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” In one sweep, Austen charts the plot of the enduringly popular work, one so firmly installed in today’s popular culture that it has been recast with zombies or referenced by Netflix’s Bridgerton.

This beautiful first trade edition by George Allen is known affectionately as the Peacock edition for its lavish gilt peacock illustrations by Hugh Thomson. Thomson also completed 160 delicate pen-and-ink drawings for the story, infusing them with small glimpses of humor. His style lent itself perfectly to the new technique of photo-engraving, of which he was a pioneer, and he was soon in popular demand for illustration of novels. Beginning in the 1890s, the market for gift books in England exploded, with publishers marketing “Christmas books” – elegant and attractive luxury editions rich in decoration and detail – as fashionable gifts. At the time of publishing, one reviewer remarked that this edition of Pride and Prejudice was “one of the richest, if not the very richest, reprints of the season in standard English fiction.”

The Works of William Shakespeare

The works of William Shakespeare are among the most influential in the English language, and editions of his works have been highly sought after by collectors. No library is complete without a set by the Bard. This 1901 edition by publisher Grant Richards is beautifully bound in three-quarter blue Morocco leather and illustrated with hand-colored frontispieces, including a reproduction of the Dreshou portrait in the first volume. Grant Richards was known for his series The World’s Classics, which is still published today by Oxford University Press, after they acquired the series in 1905.

"The Cat in the Hat" by Theodor Seuss Geisel

“We looked!
Then we saw him step in on the mat!
We looked!
And we saw him!
The Cat in the Hat!”

This mischievous children’s classic, published in 1957, took aim at the boring school primer books featuring the overly obedient Dick and Jane – stories that writer John Hersey, in an article in Life magazine, claimed were hurting child literacy. Seeing the article, Houghton Mifflin education division director William Spaulding reportedly challenged Theodor Geisel: “Write me a story that first-graders can’t put down!” Geisel did just that, building his tale of imaginative chaos around the first two words on his list that rhymed: “cat” and “hat.” Still enchanting readers and collectors alike, the book in its first edition is rare to find in its first issue, with “For Beginning Readers” circled on the front and 200/200 on the front flap. “It is the book I’m proudest of because it had something to do with the death of the Dick and Jane primers,” Geisel said.

An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

“Among all female poets of the English-speaking world in the 19th century,” writes the Poetry Foundation, “none was held in higher critical esteem or was more admired for the independence and courage of her views than Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” The prominent and prolific Victorian poet, lifelong companion to books and once candidate to succeed Wordsworth as poet laureate, was also nearly self-taught, reading authors like Dante, Voltaire, Rousseau, Homer and Shakespeare at a young age. After her father privately published her first work, The Battle of Marathon, when she was 11 or 12, Browning’s first mature work, An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems, was written when she was 20. The philosophical investigation in verse showed her fascination with Lord Byron and Greek politics. This hard-to-find first edition in its first issue is in exceptional condition, beautifully bound in green Morocco leather, and with a storied provenance: formerly in the esteemed collection of heiress, philanthropist and renowned book collector Carrie Estelle Doheny, as well as the bibliophile and historian Christopher Clark Geest.

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