Library staff working with Rare Books & Special Collections are invited to blog about significant items and interesting discoveries. Here, Rare Books & Special Collections cataloguing assistant Simon Cooper writes about the Graham Science Fiction Collection.
During the Covid-19 period the Rare Books & Special Collections cataloguing team has been tackling, from home and using photos, the books in the Graham science fiction (SF) collection. The books number around 30,000. In addition, the collection includes large holdings of comics and magazines, serials or journals, all still to be catalogued online.
The collection was donated by Ron Graham (1908-1979), a lifelong collector of science fiction, horror and fantasy (joined under the SF banner). A Sunday Telegraph article from April 16, 1978 tells us Graham, an engineer with his own group of companies, valued his collection at $750,000 and had constructed a temperature-controlled library in his home at a cost of $200,000. The collection was one of the two biggest in the world. His children did not share his interest and the collection was willed to Fisher Library. Graham also maintained detailed index cards, including a book numbering system. As cataloguers, that is the backstory we know. My interest here is in writing of my first impressions of the collection.
He appears to have mainly purchased second-hand books from dealers and fairs, on occasions from the collections of noted SF figures (these have their bookplates). Some books are inscribed to him.
With a collection this size, it’s hard to know where to start. Or finish. In my time, book collecting of fiction titles has been largely focused on first editions, preferably with dust jackets where issued. That could be a good place to begin. It’s where I always like to start, anyway.
Of famous titles that spring to mind, the collection contains both the hardcover and paper wrapper US firsts (Gnome Press, 1950) of Asimov’s I robot (the paperback copy said to be even rarer than the hardback, and its publishing history unclear); the UK first of Orwell’s 1984 (Secker & Warburg, 1949) with no jacket (however, there is the US first edition in jacket); and the US firsts of Dick’s Do androids dream of electric sheep? (Doubleday, 1968) and Herbert’s Dune (Chilton, 1965). All show at least some wear. There are only later editions of Tolkien’s The hobbit and the Lord of the rings trilogy. No Brave new world (Chatto & Windus, 1932), and War of the worlds (Heinemann, 1898) makes do with later reprints and an Armed Services edition (1945, pocket size).
My past interest in science fiction writers leaned toward the dystopian novels of J.G. Ballard, or the more whimsical stories of Robert Sheckley. There was a group of us who traded Sheckley books, and Ballard’s influence on popular culture was everywhere. Happily, the collection includes many titles of theirs, although key Ballard titles like Crash (Cape, 1973) and The atrocity exhibition (Cape, 1970) are unexpectedly absent. This is being very selective: there are plenty(!) of other rarely sighted first editions here. It is inevitable there are gaps.
The impression is that Graham was more interested in having a very broad collection, including all the different reprints, than in chasing elusive editions. And many SF titles only came out in paperback – half the collection is paperback – with imprints such as Ace publishing the first editions of some later successful authors. There are lengthy runs of such imprints.
The postwar years turned into prolific decades, including numerous popular series such as the English Badger Books SF and Supernatural (mostly by one author, often writing a book a week under various names – with colourful genre covers), or the translated German Perry Rhodan (“100,000,000 sales!”, “The series critics pan twice a month” – cover blurb), anthologies, TV tie-ins etc. The nature of the genre also means (many quite rare) limited editions, facsimiles (Moon man, Pulp Classics 5, 1974), and small press publications of all shapes and sizes. The stuff of fandom.
I have often thought of the SF genre in a linear way, progressing from the Jules Verne fantasies, or the famous H.G. Wells titles, through 1920s-40s serials (Buck Rogers) and pulp titles, or dystopian themes (Brave new world, 1984), postwar UFO stories, eco-conscious novels and space exploration, then into a more exploratory genre that included experimental writing.
The Graham collection shows that the early 20th century also saw the genre frequently used by popular novelists and essayists like Olaf Stapledon or Wells (“the most widely read author in the world” – dust jacket blurb, 1920s). They explored the role of the individual, religious thought, political systems and free love, Wells becoming increasingly didactic. His later work is not true SF but does posit many an alternative political world of the near future. Stapledon’s 1930s novels were a form of philosophical SF, often involving a time span of billions of years.
Even though the focus may seem to be on SF, a large part of the collection is more accurately horror and fantasy. And fantasy quite broadly defined – sword and sorcery, children’s adventure stories of silver airships and lost jungle tribes, James Bond or Tarzan, historical fiction, the “Kafkaesque”, or the cool experimentation of Christine Brooke-Rose (Such, Joseph, 1966). It can include dreams, reincarnation, seances and life in the Stone Age. Any form is allowed, with genre publishers such as Arkham House putting out carefully presented selections of fantasy or macabre poetry. There is a large selection, in all forms and sizes, connected to H.P. Lovecraft.
The short works of Lord Dunsany, published in a bewildering range of collections and rare limited editions (The fortress unvanquishable, W.F. Northend at the Sheffield School of Art Press, 1910, edition of 30), influenced Tolkien and others, but are not as well known today. Another I was unfamiliar with is the Bloomsbury writer David Garnett. His attractively presented books (illustrated in woodcut by Ray Garnett) include Lady into fox (Chatto & Windus, 1922, collection has a later edition), about a lady who slowly becomes … a fox. It was parodied by Christopher Ward in 1924 as Gentleman into goose – sadly, that book is not here. A homage, Vercors’ Sylva (UK translation: Hutchinson, 1962) has a fox turn into a woman.
The earliest fantasies can be identified by their boldly illustrated cloth covers. Along with the likes of Mark Twain, there are many titles by now largely unknown Victorian or Edwardian authors, and titles by authors now only remembered for a few of their books. Information on some titles, even their dates of publication, remains elusive. Many of these almost forgotten titles, as well as inter-war thrillers and mysteries, are being rediscovered through sites like goodreads.com, and the ready availability of online copies. The illustrations, once the preserve of the original books, and costly reference or coffee table collections, are also now widely available online. Research into the importance of SF is easier than ever.
However, it’s still nice to be able to consult, or at least to sight, the originals, and so many all in one place. The unexpected discovery is still always possible.
For further info on above titles or imprints, see: sf-encyclopedia.com