As strong advocates for the importance and vibrancy of the humanities, we here at the Rubenstein Library greatly enjoyed Duke President Richard Brodhead’s appearance on The Colbert Report last Thursday.  As custodians of thousands of rare books, we were especially interested in Mr. Colbert’s mention of his “beautiful copy of [Moby-Dick] — hand-tooled leather, everything.”  Colbert went on to say, “I don’t really want to crack it open, ’cause it’ll ruin the resale value.”

Which leads us to our quick pop quiz for the day: which of these copies of Moby-Dick is more valuable?

Moby-Dick in a gilded leather binding.

Moby-Dick in a gilded leather binding.

Moby-Dick in a repaired red cloth binding.

Moby-Dick in a repaired red cloth binding.

The answer: the second copy  — this is the 1851 first American edition of Moby-Dick, in its original variant red binding cloth.  The first copy, in “hand-tooled leather,” is a 1977 Easton Press publication, and copies can be found for sale online for roughly 600 times less than you’d need to pay for the first American edition.  Book historians and collectors, like Richard and Nancy Riess, who donated the Rubenstein copy of the first edition of Moby-Dick, generally prize first editions in their original bindings, for the evidence they preserve of the process by which a book was seen through the press and first encountered by readers.

The lessons, we hope:

Appearances can be deceiving, as Mr. Colbert and students of the humanities around the world know very well.

And it pays to know your book history — the kind of thing you learn with a quality humanities-based education.

Melville's signature, clipped and pasted into the Rubenstein copy of the first edition of Moby-Dick by a collector.

Melville’s signature, pasted into the Rubenstein copy of the first edition of Moby-Dick by a collector.

Post contributed by Will Hansen, Assistant Curator of Collections.




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