I’ve noticed an inordinate amount of praise directed toward Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business lately. Personally I don’t get it. But I’m not here today to argue the point. Rather, to focus on its contents page, and to show off some of the more pleasant aspects of a few of the books I’ve just spent hours packing into boxes.
First off, tell me what’s wrong with this picture…
Right. Chapter 4 starts on page 122, Chapter 3 on 172. This ‘point’ is what marks the edition I have as a First. Not a terribly difficult book to find really. And not very expensive. $200 from Steven Temple Books.
Which speaks to the point that John Metcalf makes in Shut Up he Explained, the latest of his characteristically bracing, salient books. He quotes rare book dealer Bill Hoffer who wrote in The Tanks Campaign, "For many years I have ridiculed the absurd spectacle of apparently grown men and women pretending to have succeeded at the very difficult tasks of art."
Hoffer’s low opinion of Canadian writing was not isolated, says Metcalf, nearly all Canadians share it. "There seem to be few book collectors in Canada and even fewer collectors of Canadian books. The lack of a first edition market for Canadian books is a rather extraordinary fact. It means that there aren’t enough people who love a book to buy it competitively."
The assumption here, and I think it is a valid one, is that collectability is linked to quality. Great books command great prices. Sure, the demand for Ernest Hemingway is going to be greater than for Morley Callaghan (a perennial Metcalf punching bag), there are ten times the number of Americans as Canadians; but $175,000 for The Sun Also Rises (1926) versus $518 for Strange Fugitive (1928)??
Perhaps it’s wrong to measure quality by ‘popularlity,’ or demand. I’ve in fact attacked the practice recently; while I don’t think contemporary success is an appropriate measure of merit, I do think that time is a valid arbiter, and it, eighty odd years’ worth, has had a good go at these works. Eyeing the level of price discrepancy, one can’t help but agree with Metcalf, whose sharp, detailed literary critique of Callaghan is just another reason to read this most entertaining book.
If you really love a Canadian work of fiction, why not head out to your local antiquarian book dealer and snap up a first edition. Your pocket book certainly wont feel the difference.