Springtime (when fancies turn to thoughts of love) is high time to swap that dog-eared, fly-specked, bookworm-infested copy of The Hobbit you’ve been carting around since the fourth grade for something befitting the sophisticate you are, something more likely to get that sexy librarian’s bun undone hands-free. (As of press time, a first edition of The Hobbit, containing a letter signed by Tolkien, can be yours for $65,000, plus $10 shipping, via Quintessential Rare Books of Laguna Hills).
To revolutionize your bachelor- or bachelorette-pad bookshelves in a way that respects your Tolkien worship, we herewith offer a short shopping list compiled in the spirit of Tolkien’s genius as both storyteller and illustrator, books that offer a dynamic and idiosyncratic approach to word and image. As with The Hobbit, these editions aren’t only illustrated; they’re enhanced by art that offers a depth of perspective beyond the text. In describing Leonora Carrington’s The Milk of Dreams, her son Gabriel Weisz nicely articulates that magical play of picture and prose: “There are two narratives: one is written and the other is illustrated, the two converse, one with the other, and have a strange dialogue to be discovered.” (Prices range from $15.95 to $30,000.)
To read the work of Leonora Carrington, or to gaze upon her art, is to be alternately soothed by its childlike, fairy-tale charm and startled by its wisdom and treacherous wit. Her stories are peopled by mysterious old women in peacock-feather hats or fighting in the street, “pinching each other like a pair of angry black lobsters,” or moving darkly through gardens with decaying statuary and strewn with “old toys, decapitated and destitute.” The sweet animals of her forests might turn beastly. And the beastly might turn sweet. In Mexico, Carrington painted landscapes and creatures on the walls for the entertainment of her sons. Before the walls were whitewashed, she re-created the images in a notebook, accompanied with stories and rhymes that were eventually published as The Milk of Dreams (New York Review Children’s Collection, $15.95).
Pablo Picasso, felled by the flu in his Paris apartment in 1941, his city occupied by Nazis, wrote an absurdist play while confined to his sickbed, a fever dream he titled Le Désir attrapé par la queue (or Desire Caught by the Tail). Though some have called the play unperformable, it has nonetheless been performed, most notably in 1944 with a cast that included Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Picasso himself, playing characters with names such as Skinny Anguish and Fat Anguish. (That propitious gathering seemed more enticing than the play itself to Los Angeles playwright David Jette, who created his own adaptation in 2010, titled: Wednesday Night at the Home of Michel Leiris a Reading of the Play “Desire Caught by the Tail” by the Painter Pablo Picasso.) Many who’ve seen a production of Desire warn others from doing the same, but even these critics allow that it might make for better reading. Many good copies of the playbook can be had, and they include illustrations by the author himself, making the book a compelling artifact of the artist’s wartime impoverishment and anxiety. Look for the first English-language edition, published by Rider and Co. in 1950, to set you back from $25 to $30. A copy of the 1969 paperback, with a signature and original sketch by the author, sold a few years ago for under $500.
Jazz is both a subject and an influence in the lesser-known prose work of poet Langston Hughes, who wrote several newspaper pieces about a character named Jesse “Simple” Semple, who reflected on the sights and sounds of Harlem in the 1940s and ’50s. Simple’s sensibility was informed by vaudeville too, with its comical beats. Simple, like his creator, was more than a little political. Hughes would eventually rile the ire of the infamous Senator Joe McCarthy, who was suspect of African Americans who voiced criticism of the nation’s treatment of black people. The 1961 compilation volume, The Best of Simple, features snazzy, Populuxe line drawings characteristic of mid-century style by Bernhard Nast, all cocktails and neckties. These were perhaps enlisted to slightly and merrily mask the text, due to Hughes’s own anxieties provoked by McCarthy’s hostilities. In his Historical Guide to Langston Hughes, Steven C. Tracy writes, “Nast’s drawings put Simple in a depoliticized frame, emphasizing the aspects of Simple as a lover and hanger-around, rather than as a worker and commentator on race and class relations.” For the illustrated editions, seek out the hardcovers from the 1960s (rather than the 1990 reprint), at anywhere from $5 to $50, or visit Second Story Books in Washington, D.C., for a first-edition signed (inscribed “to Maude”) for $750.
Henri Matisse illustrated a special edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, but Matisse lifted his concepts from Homer’s Odyssey (relying on some “Homeric correspondences” outlined by a Joyce scholar). The Limited Editions Club sold 250 copies signed by both the novelist and the artist for $15 each in 1935. The Manhattan Rare Book Company currently has a copy available for $30,000.
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, famous for his portraits of the cancan dancers of the Moulin Rouge, frequented the brothels of Paris, depicting the women in a controversial way—which is to say, without judging them. In his portraits, he neither romanced nor condemned; he was drawn to La Fille Elisa, the 1877 novel by Edmond de Goncourt, in which the heroine, a prostitute, murders a soldier. The novel strove for realism, with Goncourt insisting in his preface that the book was serious, fact-based, impolite, and not at all intended “for the amusement of the young ladies riding in railway trains.” Henry James, meanwhile, criticized the novel as “intolerably unclean … profoundly distasteful to healthy appetites.” The imagery in the book was believed to have been inspired by the drawings of soldiers and prostitutes by Constantin Guy; in turn, the novel’s imagery inspired artists such as Edgar Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. When the novel was to be reissued, Toulouse-Lautrec offered to illustrate; the author rejected the proposal, so the artist simply illustrated his own copy of the book, with watercolor and crayon, in 1896. A facsimile edition of this illustrated copy would be published later by Librairie de France, in 1931. Copy 31 of the 175-copy limited run can be had for $1,500 from the Heritage Book Shop in Tarzana, California.