Antiquarian book dealer and avid bibliophile Simon Finch meditates on the passions and delusions particular to his trade, and reflects on a rare text that eluded him nearly thirty years ago
In 1989, my bookselling career was taking off, and I was rabid to attend every auction I could. November of that year saw a fabulous sale of important books in fine condition at Sotheby’s in New York. Among the many remarkable items was a first edition of Don Quixote and a book by Georg Joachim Rheticus called Narratio Prima, one of the rarest and most important books in the history of science, printed in Gdansk in 1540.
Rheticus was the only pupil of Copernicus and his slight publication was the first printed account of the great man’s heliocentric theory of the universe. Its printing gave Copernicus the courage to publish his own book, and the sheets of De Revolutionibus were delivered to him on his deathbed in 1543. Perhaps he checked out at the right time: The idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun was not particularly popular then.
The month of the auction was also the month I got married, and I had to persuade my wife to take a detour on our honeymoon to see the book, which, kindly, she agreed to. But it was all in vain; the Rheticus went for $470,000, way beyond my pocket at the time.
The addicted book collector is motivated by hope and desire. Bibliomania is an ancient affliction, though it was only named in the 18th century by John Ferriar – a physician at the Manchester Royal Infirmary – and it is an affliction without a cure. The acquisition of one particular volume does not satisfy. Delusion is part of the disease. I somehow imagined that the Rheticus might slide between the cracks and be had for a bargain price.
About a decade later I was at a book fair on the continent when a gentleman asked me whether I would like to buy “quite a rare book”. Of course, the answer was “Yes”, but I was not quite prepared for what it was: a copy of the Rheticus and the equally scarce second edition. This time around I was in a position to make a deal – such incredible joy.
I never got the Don Quixote and my marriage didn’t last, but you can’t, as they say, win them all.
This is an excerpt from issue 21 of Port, out now. To buy or subscribe click here.