A novice book collector gets a quick and expensive education in the rare-book world in this epistolary tale.
In his 2011 novel, Correspondence, Hall introduced Larry, a rough-around-the-edges New Yorker who lucked into a cache of letters written by Victorian luminaries. In this sequel, Larry is flush with $400,000 from the sale of those letters and now wants to collect fine books. Perhaps a complete run of Trollope first editions would be a good way to start? One of his email interlocutors gently steers him from this folly—that’s an extremely expensive enterprise, and he’s on a $25,000 budget. So after a brief flirtation with more modest Victoriana, he begins to seek out affordable works from New Yorker writers such as James Thurber, J.D. Salinger, John Updike, and Dorothy Parker. Larry’s indulgent correspondents deliver pocket biographies of the authors he’s chasing down, along with brief clinics on book-collecting arcana, from foxing to association copies to explanations of wild price differences in different editions and the fine points of marrying dust jackets. Between that and Larry’s jeezum-crow exclamations at just about every step (“I have a question for you on dust jackets: What the hell is this all about?”), the novel is often ploddingly pedagogical, and Hall’s feints toward deepening Larry’s character with mentions of an impatient girlfriend and a shady-seeming book dealer feel half-hearted. But while the book is weak as a story, it’s a reasonably engaging and informed introduction to serious book collecting, and Hall's detours on Trollope and Max Beerbohm are informed by his scholarship on those authors. (He’s written books on both.) “I can’t help but admire a person so unashamedly frank and humbly inquisitive,” a scholar says of Larry, which is true enough. Alas the tension here largely involves Larry’s pocketbook.
A how-to guide disguised in a disposable novelistic dressing.