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Jewish World Review Sept. 20, 2002 / 14 Tishrei, 5763

D. T. Max

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Consumer Reports

A rare book collector's new best-friend | Book collecting. The money. The dust. Those harassing phone calls. ''We've found your Joyce.'' ''We have your Pynchon.'' As if your children had been kidnapped and the caller were demanding a ransom. Yet the goal is honorable. Book collecting is about creating a pantheon of writers whose creativity inspires your own. And there's the way you feel when a book's finally in your hands, something you've been looking for for years, the thing itself, an artifact retrieved from oblivion. . . .

After college I made a compromise. I would look for books but I wouldn't collect them. Living in a small apartment played a part. So did memories of half-filled-in Topps baseball-card checklists and a file cabinet of seashells. I had put in a lot of time collecting and wasn't sure what I'd got back. Also I was an editorial assistant at a book publisher. I loved books, but fetishizing them seemed unprofessional. So once in a while I did the used and out-of-print bookstore circuit -- the Strand and Gotham Book Mart in New York, Pangloss and Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass. -- and searched the shelves for certain books. Thomas Lovell Beddoes's ''Poems,'' ''The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson,'' a hardcover copy of John Updike's ''Rabbit, Run'' and, later, a first edition of Louis Begley's ''Wartime Lies.'' The list said something about what I liked to read and something about what I wanted to like to read, but certainly one of its virtues was the near impossibility of finding any of these books.

This changed one day last year at Riverrun, a bookstore on a nearly vertical street in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. I walked in and asked if they had Beddoes's ''Poems.'' Over the years I'd learned to love the throw-weight Beddoes had. You could go into the Gotham Book Mart or the Argosy Book Store and ask for Beddoes, a 19th-century English Romantic poet, and they'd know you weren't just any clown. This time the manager of Riverrun typed in Beddoes on his computer -- there had been no computer the last time I had been there -- and found a two-volume edition edited by the British critic Edmund Gosse. A bookstore in St. Paul had it, copy No. 37 of 125 copies printed in London by J. M. Dent in 1890. It was probably the only copy for sale in the English-speaking world. It may have been the only copy to have survived. The price was $225 for the set, payable by Visa. The books showed up a week later in a re-used cardboard box stuffed with butcher paper. I pulled them out and held them in my hands. Their remarkable tooled leather and red, yellow-and-green-marbled endpapers, so at home in a late Victorian library, seemed alien in mine. They were easily the most beautiful books I'd ever seen. I wasn't sure what to think. Casper Gutman wouldn't have been more shocked if he'd got the Maltese Falcon. I did what I imagine Gutman would have done with his bird. I put my books on a shelf away from direct sunlight and waited to see what would happen next.

Is it possible to own every book you want? Is it desirable? A lot has been written about what the electronic age will do to the book, but almost nothing about what it will do to book collecting. Even the young man who helped transform collecting doesn't worry about this question. Anirvan Chatterjee graduated this summer from U.C. Berkeley with a specialty in network information systems. For him, setting up a Web site to find used and rare books was an undergraduate finger exercise. Two years ago he wrote the software to link up some used-book databases -- Bibliofind, Advanced Book Exchange, < Powell's Books-- via his home computer. He called the site MX Bookfinder because he liked the sound. Giving Chatterjee credit for revolutionizing book collecting may be like giving the man who hammered in the Golden Spike credit for building the railroad. Still, where would I be without him? More to the point, where would my Beddoes be? (I was now thinking of Copy No. 37 as ''my Beddoes.'') When I called Chatterjee, our conversation was not easy. He talked about Ethernet cards and the Linux operating system. The Internet is a democratizing force, he said, which is why his site will never charge a fee. When I asked him what he liked to read, he mentioned Howard Zinn. I heard ''Howard's End.''

But Chatterjee got the needs of book collectors. His site connects more than 5,000 bookstores. He says it handles a million requests a month, up 10,000 percent from last year. The reach of on-line collecting is now so extensive that on a visit earlier this year to the Argosy I found the A-G section of the first edition room nearly empty, and the remaining books falling over on each other. H-Z is now either on line or about to be. Is it farfetched to imagine a day when every collector has every book he wants, when every book finds an owner and bookstores are empty? MX Bookfinder is a casual site with minimal graphics. You don't realize you are in a room that contains eight million books. You just think: How nice. They have what I'm looking for.

They kept having my book. I got the Begley from a Los Angeles store. Then I got the Updike from Riverrun -- not ''Rabbit, Run,'' which was too expensive, but his first novel, ''The Poorhouse Fair.'' The cover felt like coarse flour, the pages like old cotton. I shelved it too. I was content but not ecstatic. Was I missing bookstores themselves? That was hard to believe. Collecting this way felt entirely natural, like using an A.T.M. The books came. They came and they came.

One day I looked at my Updike with a gimlet eye. Why did it look like it had spent the summer on the beach? I wanted a ''tight and bright'' copy, as I had learned to say from reading dealers' descriptions on MX Bookfinder. What I had was a ''reading copy.'' It turned out that the Johnson set was in print but without dust jackets. I wanted dust jackets. Beddoes was a more complicated case. The life had undeniable power: precocity, exile on the Continent, suicide at 45. I was reading the books themselves now, these stunning peacocks, and finding the poems depressing and disquieting. Beddoes has always been associated in my mind with college, a difficult period for me, whose meaning I've never quite figured out. This may seem an oblique reason to spend 15 years looking for a book, but that's the nature of collecting. Reading a biography of Beddoes I got from the library, I learned that most of his manuscripts were destroyed in a fire at the Italian villa of the heirs of his literary executor, Robert Browning. And I found out that Oxford had published a definitive edition of the poems in 1935. Now I didn't have the Beddoes. I had a Beddoes. That night I had a dream in which the college librarian withheld my diploma until I paid my fines. The amount was just beyond my field of vision, no matter how fast I ran.

Someday soon it may be possible to own every book you want, and it won't depend on Anirvan Chatterjee, either. Amazon.comhas a service that searches for out-of-print books. Barnes & Noble is about to offer a similar service. The whole thing will soon become so easy, but will it be wise? All those memories, the silt of your emotional life dredged up onto your bookshelf? Do you want to be Gutman, always chasing what he doesn't have? Or Sam Spade, needing no one and nothing but a shave?

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05/31/02: The end of the book?

© 2002, D.T. Max. This column first appeared in The New York Times. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.