Lost Continent Books

Mapping the Terrain of Used and Rare Books

The Siren Song of the Vonnegut Canon

Out of the many authors I have read, the one who has been, without a doubt, the largest and most enduring influence on me as a reader is Kurt Vonnegut. I still recall sitting in the Cafe Curio – now the Commonplace – and reading the first line of Chapter 1 of “Breakfast of Champions,” my first experience with Mr. Vonnegut – “This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.”

Ah, but that’s a story for another day. This is a story of  “Sirens of Titan,” the author’s second novel after “Player Piano.”

TheSirensofTitan(1959) (1)

First edition, PBO. Dell, October 1959.

Sirenshc

First hardcover edition. Original state in dust-jacket. Houghton Mifflin, 1959.

“Sirens” was first published by Dell as a paperback-original (PBO) in October of 1959. It was largely ignored. For reasons unknown the Houghton Mifflin Company decided to print a small number of hardcover copies later that same year. It is estimated that roughly 2,000 were printed. It is also estimated that more than a quarter of those were sent directly to libraries where they were rebound. Another unknown number of the books were inadvertently destroyed. Thus, very few unadulterated copies of the book remained – and remember this was still 1959-1960. The few remaining copies, ex-library or not, have been floating around, with God knows what happening to them, for more than fifty years.

Also keep in mind: The hardcover edition of this book did not start to become even slightly collectible (or even widely heard of) until 1969 when “Slaughterhouse-Five” launched Vonnegut to celebrity-author status.

So one can imagine the scarcity of this volume here and now, 2013.

***

There I was – making my routine rounds to my routine book-stores, thrift-stores, shit-stores, yard-sales, and flea-markets. Driving around Western, PA hoping to maybe find an old book on the intricacies of mine-shaft ventilation that would pay for my gas. Things were dismal that day. I had a few Tom Robbins paperbacks and a “Electronic Talking Battleship” game that may or may not have been complete and which I totally regretted buying even as I was buying it.

Last Stop, Grendel’s Valley Used Books*. I know this place well and was hardly filled with anticipation as I entered the store. At the best a handful of Science Fiction paperbacks that I might be able to turn over at double their price (2$ each.) I chatted with the owner and he bounced on the balls of his feet as he giddily explained to me how he buys books in bulk at auctions and such and looks them up on the internet and then prices them down a dollar or two and then resells them! I wanted to talk-shop with him, but the first rule of book-scouting is to not let anyone know you are book-scouting. You must carry an arsenal of stock-phrases. “Oh, I have eclectic tastes, I just love collecting books, pretty much anything that seems interesting, ho ho, yes sir, this is just a neat book, you have great stuff in here, I’m a bit of a hoarder when it comes to this sort of thing”… Something to put at ease any and everyone from the suspicious-eyed proprietor to the cute co-ed clerking at the Goodwill who asks what you want all those gynecology textbooks for (that’s a tough one.)

But I digress… That is, again, a subject for another time.

So, ever diligent, I started to meticulously comb the stacks, starting with general fiction.

Lots of Grisham, lots of Clancy, lots of contemporary bestsellers, a sickening amount of Daniel Steele (if you ever read one of her novels, when you are finished either keep it or destroy it – I am so tired of seeing her name.) In other words, lots of junk.

I got to the end of the fiction stacks. The end of the alphabet, the end of my hopes, the end of my

My copy of "The Sirens of Titan."

My copy of “The Sirens of Titan.”

rope. I quickly snatched up a beat paperback “Very Good, Jeeves.” It’s not worth anything, monetarily, but it’s something I’ll pick up on an ugly afternoon to avoid getting drunk. So that’s it. The trip was over. What a crock of shit. A quick second glance and I saw bright white letters – The Sirens of Titan. Well, fuck me, I thought, how did I miss that? My favorite book by my favorite author. I’ll take any Vonnegut title in any condition if the price is right. Who cares if I have five

copies of “Cat’s Cradle”?

It’s hardcover, and only three-dollars. Not bad. I don’t have a hardcover copy of “Sirens.” I think you see where this is going… I got home, did my research, and found that I had one of the x

number remaining copies of the original state HMC edition of “Siren’s of Titan.” How did it end up in some low-end book-store nestled away in the decaying coal-belt of Western Pennsylvania? That’s the same question I ask myself every day. How did a amateur bookseller and barely budding collector like myself end up, by sheer chance, with the Holy Grail of Vonnegut books? A book that, even lacking the jacket, can fetch fifteen hundred or more?

And, most of all, how did the man not notice he had it and why was it only three dollars? A beat 83rd edition mass-market paperback copy of that title can easily catch four or five. We will never know.

But it’s the thrill of the hunt. That’s why on most days I start to get that Gambler’s Rush walking into even the lamest looking thrift-shop. That’s why I’ll pull over to just about any garage sale I happen to pass even if it appears that all they have is stacks of wrinkled baby-clothes and those little glassed-in pictures of WWF wrestlers that you win at the County Fair. To quote Calvin and Hobbes – “There’s Treasure Everywhere.”

***

Hmmm…. So much more I want to interject but this thing is long and disjointed enough as it is. This is my first post on the website run by my Brother Daniel and myself. So forgive me if I’m all over the place. I hope to touch on some of the things that were brought up here in later entries. So, if anyone is reading this, bear with us and keep checking back.

–Alex

* Names have been changed to protect the fleeced. 

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About jansonbriggs

Book collectoe/ dealer, aspiring author, have had poems published in a few small magazines.... I like cats and quiet. I like airplane lift-offs and the new-renewal of wandering (wondering?) around somewhere new. I like solitude. I miss people. Bob Dylan. Running water; still water - I like water. A good sence of humor. Again: A good sense of humor. That's what keeps us sane and human and Kind.

2 comments on “The Siren Song of the Vonnegut Canon

  1. Pingback: Vonnegut is my guru | Syncretic

    • jansonbriggs
      July 7, 2013

      So glad you are getting into Vonnegut! He will always be at the top of my list of Writers that influenced me both as a reader and a fellow writer. Your post has some real interesting insights, keep it up, I’d like to hear more. And keep checking back with us… What we strive for is a connected group of insightful readers, writers, talkers, people… Keep in contact, and thanks for looking! Alex.

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