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Dr James Darke has expelled himself from the world. He writes compulsively in his 'coming of old age' journal; he eats little, drinks and smokes a lot.

Meditating on what he has lost – the loves of his life, both dead and alive - he tries to console himself with the wisdom of the great thinkers and poets, yet finds nothing but disappointment.

Jenny Todd, Publisher at Canongate, have acquired World Rights in DARKE, Rick Gekoski’s debut novel, from Peter Straus at Rogers, Coleridge and White. Jenny Todd says: “DARKE is a stunning and distinctive novel full of living, learning and reading. Above all, it’s heart-breakingly true and wise. We are so proud to be publishing it.”

Canongate published DARKE as a lead title in hardback in the UK in February 2017, with the paperback edition due for release in the UK on 1st February 2018.


Some Reviews and Responses

'I was beguiled and charmed by the vivid personality being revealed. By that, and by the fact that I couldn't stop reading. Gekoski puts words together with a sure touch and deep craftsmanship'

'A wondrous book with two fathers, Kingsley Amis and Dante'

'Staggeringly accomplished. Heartbreakingly true. A shockingly monumental first novel'
'Stuffed with more wisdom, bile, wit and tenderness than many writers create in a lifetime. In James Darke we have a hero as troubled and eternal as King Lear . . . And in Rick Gekoski we have a late-flowering genius of a novelist who proves it's never too late to start a glittering career in fiction'

'Rick Gekoski's impressive debut novel . . . Darke is both a tender and hard-hitting examination of grief and the slow, singular healing process . . . A brilliantly vivid creation . . . life-affirming and life-shattering'

'Gekoski has created an extraordinarily memorable character... This is an original and bleakly funny portrait of grief'

'An immensely enjoyable elegy . . . done with precision and patience. I have never laughed as much at a book that made me weep so copiously'


Radio National: Books Plus with Kate Evans - 21 May, 2017


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Lost, Stolen or Shredded

He collected absences. For him they were more intense, vibrant and real than the presences that they shadowed. And this one – he’d just heard the news of the most audacious art theft of his time – was astonishing, quite enough to merit a change of travel plans. And so he and his friend Max departed from Milan and headed for Paris, the scene of the crime.

On a day early in September 1911 they arrived at the Louvre that little bit late to join the queue, heightening the anticipation. When they eventually entered the Salon Carré, they approached the spot where the Mona Lisa had been displayed for generations. The crowd – all of whom had come on the same pilgrimage – pushed forward, and the little man, jostled, could hardly see. Taking his friend by the shoulder, Max pushed to the very front. Other onlookers paused to deposit flowers on the floor beneath, with notes of remembrance tied in silk ribbons.

He stood in front of the wall, those obsidian eyes staring, rapt. The painting was gone. That’s why he was there. It had been stolen a week before, and the Museum had only just reopened to the public. The crowd had come expressly to see where it used to be, and now wasn’t.

For Franz Kafka, the absent Mona Lisa was in the process of joining the internal collection that he called his ‘invisible curiosities’: sights, monuments and works of art that he had missed seeing. The phrase, like many of Kafka’s aperçus, is both puzzling and provocative. It occurs several times in his writing, often in the context of thinking about the movies. Max Brod refers to the idea (it is unclear which of them first used it) in describing a scene in a film in which a young woman is travelling quickly in a taxi at night in Munich: ‘We see, of all edifices, only the first floor, since the car’s big visor blocks our view. Fantastic imaginings of the height of the palaces and churches.’

Kafka, musing on the scene and imaginatively engaged by what is not seen, expanded the image, as the ‘driver calls out the names of the invisible sights’. What fascinates him is that something significant is out there, moving by too quickly to apprehend, as in a few seconds’ exposure in a film.

Travelling on hissing tires, in the back of a taxi on a rainy night, a cityscape partially revealed as it whizzes by, might be taken as a metaphor for the human journey. A concentrated act of attention, peering out the window, can only frustrate, with its suggestions of larger hidden presences. What is imperfectly revealed is a shadowy simulacrum of what is most assuredly out there, if only one had the light, the time and the right vantage point from which to see it.

There is a similarity between this image and that of Plato’s allegory of the caves, in which a fully realised world casts its shadow on the wall, and is taken to be all that there is. In Kafka’s reframing of the metaphor, though, there is a doubly troubling centre: again there is the blurred approximation of the real, but in the taxi image the onlooker is aware of his estrangement from that fleeting world, whereas in Plato’s the shadows are taken to be all that there is.

So: are we all tootling about in taxis, craning our necks at the unlit streets? Not at all; you don’t always take a cab. What we have here – which is so typical of Kafka – is a suggestive moment which seems to have some general application, but also resists it. There are plenty of experiences in which we walk the streets in the presence of the familiar: buildings, people, landscapes, seen in clear light. Kafka, though, is more imaginatively engaged by the barely apprehended, suggestive, lost. There is, after all, something wearying, predictable and banal, about knowing things.

This fascination with what is shimmeringly and incompletely present haunts Kafka’s imagination and pervades his work. He is the perfect onlooker for an absent presence, not for the Mona Lisa itself but for where it used to be. She had been stolen, or perhaps one should say kidnapped? But why such a crowd? More people had come to see where the Mona Lisa used to be than had attended when it was hanging in its accustomed place. What were they looking at, and for? Because all they saw was a shadowy band of grime on the wall that marked the outlines of the missing picture, and which seemed in itself to frame the possibilities of new imagining. Could the assembled throng – they knew the image, most of them – project it into that seemingly empty space? For the moment it almost made artists of them.

I have invoked the figure of Franz Kafka, queuing excitedly to add to his catalogue of absences, not because there is something surreal – something Kafkaesque – in his pursuit, but because he is, for once, typical. There is nothing eccentric in his obsession with absent objects and lost opportunities. Kafka stands, here, both for myself and, I hope, for my reader. We are all curious about our invisible curiosities.

Lost, Stolen or Shredded consists of a series of chapters broadly based on stories of lost works of art and literature, where ‘lost’ means, as Humpty Dumpty remarked firmly about his choice of a word, ‘just what I choose it to mean’. They can be read individually, for it is not my aim to write generally about the nature of loss, or to give some potted history of works of art that have been lost. No fun in that.

When a wilful destruction of a work is contemplated, knotty moral problems may attend the act. Was Philip Larkin’s secretary right to shred his diaries, shortly before his death? Or Byron’s executors to burn his Memoirs? Was Max Brod right to reject Kafka’s final instruction to burn all of his unpublished manuscripts?

For me, the stories of Byron, Larkin and Kafka are connected to each other, mutually illuminate, force distinction and discrimination, both confuse and illustrate, lead inevitably to philosophical, moral and psychological reflection. Stories of loss attach to each other like stray atoms, coagulate and grow into something more complex and more compelling than single entities.

If you want to understand the attachment engendered by works of art, you would do better to read Bruce Chatwin’s Utz, or Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton, than a treatise on the subject. We often learn more from a compelling story than from whole volumes of sociology or art history. Stories are more entertaining, more instructive, and more memorable. They stick in the mind, and to each other: they make a world.

These stories are chosen because they are part of my own internal museum of loss. In recounting them I am, inevitably, also writing about myself. All writing, admittedly, is a form of autobiography, however impersonal and ‘objective’ it may seem. The way in which we see and value things, put them together, express their meanings and relations, inevitably reveals something of the mind and voice of the observer, whether they be a novelist or a mathematician. Wordsworth observes that the world as we encounter it is something that we ‘half perceive and half create’, and I have felt it necessary in writing these chapters, which are part essay and part memoir, to reveal and to interrogate both elements of this process. What is out there? Why, and how, do I care?

In the course of the forthcoming chapters I occasionally seem to find myself on both sides of a question, apparently unable or unwilling to choose, so complex and intractable are the questions. There’s danger in this, to be sure. It seems to offer a soft option, to absolve one from thinking sufficiently hard about a topic finally to come down on one side or the other.

Is it regrettable that cultural objects are forcibly appropriated from their native soil and transported to foreign museums? Yes. Is it a boon and a delight that we can visit those museums and learn about other civilisations? Certainly.

Can it be right to destroy an important work of art, as Winston Churchill’s wife burned a portrait of him by Graham Sutherland? It seems a vile precedent, which gives credibility to the enemies of culture such as the Maoists, with their wholesale conflagration of centuries of Chinese art, architecture and literature. And yet there are instances – is this one? – in which such vandalism seems justifiable.

It’s easy enough to scrape away at such tensions, smooth them over, force the recalcitrant material into easier shapes. That is just what I have tried to avoid. Anyone who is not perplexed by the complex issues surrounding the loss of works of art hasn’t thought about them sufficiently.

There is a phrase in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that is apposite here. Trying desperately to understand the full implications of what has happened to him on his appalling trip down the Congo, the narrator muses that ‘the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze’. Though this has caused one commentator to accuse the author of ‘making a virtue out of not knowing what he means’, I’m on Conrad’s side on this one. I distrust people who emphatically know what they mean.

I rather like that haziness, with its suggestion that when we seek to understand our most complex ‘episodes’ it is only by craning our necks, squinting our eyes, trying to make out what is imperfectly before us. Like Kafka and Max Brod in that night-time taxi ride, trying to perceive what is only partially knowable. When we are faced with ultimate questions and intractable mysteries, meaning is often imperfectly apprehended, guessed at rather than mastered, tantalisingly ungraspable: a glow that brings out a haze.

It’s a most elusive metaphor, dangerous in its way, a counsel to accept ambiguity and clearly to honour unclarity: to provide a sense of the world, of its muddle and unseen presences, that is accurate and moving, provocative, real.

Available on Amazon:


London Evening Standard (Michael Prodger)

“Gekoski gives each of his subjects this Moral Maze treatment. Because he is an informed and discursive interrogator, and never shy of expressing an opinion, these essays entertainingly mix whodunnit narrative with cultural polemic.”

The Scotsman (Stuart Kelly)

“this beguiling and intriguing series of essays on the fragility of our culture….not only is Gekoski superbly well-read, but he will cunningly interrogate our often contradictory feelings towards the loss of great works of art….It’s a delightfully eclectic mix, made even more interesting by Gekoski’s willingness to countenance the idea that loss is not always a tragedy….The whole is enlivened by Gekoski’s trenchant asides.”

The Guardian (Kathryn Hughes)

“Gekoski seeks to illustrate the missing lives of major artworks with a series of jaunty case histories. Yet despite uncovering every kind of cultural cupidity and stupidity, Gekoski finishes his tour of duty sounding upbeat. He has clambered into too many dusty attics and groped under too many sofas to go weepy at the thought of what might not be there.”

The Times (Jeanette Winterson)

“Part of the pleasure of sitting crosslegged on the floor with Gekoski, going through his rummage-drawer of disappearances, is that he raises enough interesting questions to show how difficult it is to take a particular view, though he is not too shy to tell us where he stands.”

The Spectator (Brian Sewell)

“…his discursions on such matters as the burning of Byron’s memoirs, Larkin’s diaries and the library of the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum are enchanting speculations on what might have been ….”

The Sunday Times (Christopher Hart)

“This delightful collection of essays…. arrives at many a thoughtful conclusion. Gekoski is always lively and opinionated.”

The Observer (Alexander Larman)

“In this highly entertaining book, the author goes in search of some of the great missing works of art and literature, using a mixture of careful detective work and some erudite speculation…..Gekoski isn’t afraid to offer some controversial opinions…..One finishes the book exhilarated and amused.”

The Financial Times (Carl Wilkinson )

“Gekoski has carved out a niche addressing liminal subjects:…In Lost, Stolen or Shredded he brings the same wry and analytical eye to bear on some fascinating tales….An illuminating and eclectic book that addresses some of the big questions: what is art and why does it matter?”

Daily Mail (Craig Brown)

“In his latest collection of short, sparky essays, Rick Gekoski has had the bright idea of exploring the world of missing works of art…. Gekoski is never mealy-mouthed, never the spokesman for received opinion. He is the opposite of stuffy, preferring to leave his audience provoked rather than placated…. It’s all good, rollicking stuff…So this book should raise eyebrows galore, but then that is part of its purpose. It asks many exciting questions and, in doing so, makes life, and art, seem more vital than ever.”

TLS (Toby Lichtig)

A “call to contemplation.” Gekoski has an ear for lively prose and a nose for a good story… This erudite and wide-ranging collection… should be read: in short bursts, with great pleasure, and even greater consideration to art’s contradictions and contingencies.”

KatieWardWriter (author of Girl Reading)

“…he’s witty, knowledgeable and engaging – someone I’d definitely want to be seated next to at a dinner party. Despite the big themes this is a hugely readable book about an intriguing subject.”

Country Life (Ysenda Maxtone Grahaam)

“Rick Gekoski is charming company as a writer….fluent and raconteurish and you feel as if you’re sitting across a pub table from him while he tells you a series of astonishing stories.”

The Hindu (Pradeep Sebastian)

“Rick Gekoski offers tantalising glimpses into lost treasures…..fascinating essays.”

Irish Examiner (Peter Murray)

“An expertly told tale… of an interesting curatorial project, which is also anti-curatorial…. The author of Lost, Stolen or Shredded is every bit as interesting as his writings.”

The National, UAE (Jonathan Gornall)

“A fascinating new survey… By inviting us to consider what might have been, rather than what simply is, Gekoski recruits us as willing collaborators in the very process of art.”

New Zealand Herald. (John Gardner)

“The book raises weighty issues but Gekoski, whose background is a winning mixture of academia and book dealing, has as good an eye for a joke as he has for a rare volume.”

Otago Daily Times, (Geoff Adams)

“An erudite and witty writer… The most interesting content, though, is the way Gekoski raises and debates many questions…This is a good book to read and keep – not lose or shred.”

Christchurch Press (Anna Rogers)

“An erudition worn lightly, an enormous passion for ideas, a wicked and well deployed

sense of humour, a fearlessness about expressing a personal view and an ability

to write a fine and memorable sentence….Gekoski is like the best kind of dinner companion, amiable and articulate, witty and wise, challenging without being aggressive, interested only in

exploring the endlessly fascinating world about him, with all its losses, and its joys.”

Southland Times, New Zealand (Michael Fallow)

“Make what you will of Gekoski’s take on these and many other cases, but he’s a cracking good storyteller and on those grounds alone the book is an agreeable read. And near its conclusion there’s the perfect, almost shimmering quotation to illuminate the book’s entire approach.”

Graham Beattie, Beattie’s Book Blog (NZ)

“He is an erudite and witty man….I found the book a delightful, entertaining and often provocative read as Gekoski, an informed and articulate author, raises here a number of questions about our relationship with art.”

Book Oxygen (Sian Miles)

“This is a treasure-trove of a book written by a generous, humorous, wise and voluptuous author, the sharing of whose life experiences in a highly competitive field is deeply and unusually enriching.”

Literary Review (Alan Massie).

“entertaining collection of essays….”

Picked as Book of the Week by Time Out.

Guardian Review of Reviews.

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Outside of a Dog: A Bibliomemoir

The title is from Groucho Marx: “Outside of a Dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read,” which is both funny and a demonstration that homilies about reading are stupid. The subtitle – A Bibliomemoir – is a term and category I have made up, and do not wish to define. What is a bibliomemoir, then? It’s one of these. Read it and find out.

INTRODUCTION: The Battle of the Books

“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.”

(Henry David Thoreau, Walden)

“Lot 147 then. Lovely item!”

The auctioneer’s eyes flicked towards the left hand wall.

A ferrety porter in a green apron pointed out the object.

“Showing here, sir!”

“Who’ll start me at £100 then?”

I stood along the left side of the room, my catalogue clutched damply in my hand, trying to look nonchalant. An audience of about fifty people wandered in and out, settled on their chairs, drank coffee from plastic cups. A middle aged women in a hat with a red feather had bid excitedly on many of the items, waving her catalogue in the air. In the back row a silver haired man was reading quietly to a toddler.

Our local auction house had weekly sales of sub-antique household furniture, which were great fun for picking up the odd coal scuttle, rocking chair, or threadbare Oriental rug. Occasionally I might spend a tenner on a job lot of books with one or two first editions in it. The pickings were not bad: prosperous towns with large houses often disgorge interesting bric-a-brac. While Leamington Spa’s treasures weren’t as rich as those of, say, Bath or Cheltenham, there were bargains to be had.

But this was not one of the weekly sales, but the monthly Fine Art Sale, which was not for the likes of me. In 1974 I only made £1800 a year, and I had never spent more than £16 on an item for the house. I was very nervous, scanning the room for possible competition. A local dealer? Perhaps one of my University colleagues?

“£100? £100? Who’ll start me at £50 then?” His eyes moved towards the back of the room, where a clutch of dealers were smoking and chatting noisily, apparently paying no attention.

“I have £50.”

He moved upwards slowly in increments of £5. I bided my time, prowling like a nervous lion, ready to pounce. The bidding reached £85 and the pace slowed. I raised my programme in the air, but wasn’t noticed. I raised my whole arm. Me, sir, pick me!

“New place. £90. Thank you sir.”

The dealer at the back nodded once more, and I increased my bid to £100. There was a pause as the auctioneer peered round the room. The dealer shrugged and went back to his conversation. The laws of nature were suspended. Time stood still. The gavel poised in the air.

“All done then? Last chance. Do I hear £110?… I’ll take £105 if you like.”

A final leisurely look, and the gavel hit the podium with a satisfying crack. I lowered my arm, which had stayed suspended in the air as if I were acknowledging applause after scoring a goal.

I was exultant. The very same item had been offered in a previous Fine Arts Sale, at an estimate of £300 – £500, and I had watched as it failed to sell. No way could I afford that much for a bookcase, however grand. I had a theory though – I had lots of theories in those days – which was that large bookcases were white elephants: if a person had a lot of books he was unlikely to have a big house, whereas people with large houses weren’t likely accumulators of books. So big bookcases need to find just the right buyer.

That would be me, and this one was a beauty. Made of Victorian mahogany, it divided into six sections, the three top ones fitting onto the slightly protruding bottom sections, making a unit twelve feet long by ten feet high, with fifteen adjustable shelves that would hold, I reckoned, about a thousand books. My then-wife Barbara and I had recently refurbished a gracious Regency terraced house in the middle of Leamington Spa. It had four double bedrooms, a large sitting room with a balcony overlooking the garden and original wide-planked reddish Canadian pine floors, and an undistinguished marble fireplace, which we thought rather posh.

In the process of furnishing the house, the recurrent problem was where to find room for all my books. I was not a book collector, but I acquired them avidly, and for any variety of reasons. I bought books to read immediately, books to read sometime in the future, books that were useful for research, books that looked good to me or might look good to others. Many I bought for no reason at all, on one whim or another. And after a time there was nowhere to put them. The alcoves were all shelved, occasional bookcases bedecked the walls of the hallways, bedrooms, kitchen and study. Piles of books grew like spores, and prospered. The house was infested with them.

And now, with the mere raising and eventual lowering of a hand, the problem was solved. I paid £20 to have our new bookcase delivered, assembled it on the left hand wall of the sitting room, opposite the fireplace, and spent a sweaty weekend organising and shelving, constructing an exhibition of my life as a reader. There were books from my high school and undergraduate years, like the tatty but heavily annotated A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.From my time at Oxford, working copies of all of Matthew Arnold, my annotated Lewis Carroll, long runs of Lawrence, Joyce, and Eliot. And most significantly there were my Conrads: all of his books, many in first editions, as well as all of the available critical books on him, which I had used doing my D.Phil., many of them stained with sweat and tears. Then there were all of the books, with their heavy apparatus of notes, annotations, marginalia and insertions, that I had used while teaching at The University of Warwick: hundreds of volumes of philosophy, psychology and literature, the tools of my former trade, each volume weighted with the memory of courses, syllabuses, and seminars taught. There were books that charted my various enthusiasms: tomes on Chinese porcelain, a series of books on Oriental painting, shelves full of art books and exhibition catalogues, plus a mass of books about various sports: John Feinstein on golf and basketball, Mike Brearley on cricket captaincy, Hunter Davies on football, George Will on baseball, Nick Faldo on himself.

When, some twenty years later, Barbara and I divorced, we came to the neat agreement that she would keep the house and its contents, and I would have our smaller London flat and its contents. The only exception to this admirably simple plan was that I would be allowed to retrieve my books whenever I was able to house them. But a divorce is seldom a simple or amicable thing: people don’t do it because they trust each other and know how to negotiate their differences. A year later, when I moved to a larger flat with my new girlfriend Belinda, I rang Barbara to ask when I could pick up the books? Never, she said. She was entitled to the contents of the house, as we had agreed, and if she had once (she acknowledged) allowed me to think of them as mine, she had changed her mind and was keeping them. Given that I had refused to return a Roger Hilton painting that I had given her as a gift, but which was still in London, why should she return my books?

I was stunned. She was quite right about the painting, and I had behaved badly, but I had never expected anything as forensically undermining as the kidnapping of my books. I’d been outsmarted, mugged, and denuded of a great treasure. I howled, I hooted, I imprecated. I cursed Barbara and I cursed God. These weren’t books, things of paste and ink and paper. They were my as close as I came to a soul, they contained my history, my inner voices and connections to the transcendent, and she had excised it, as in that novel of Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy, where children’s daemons are surgically removed, and they waste away and die. Ex-wives know where your soft spots are, and this foray was wonderfully exact, as if beamed by micro-surgery into the secret places of my heart.

The books were not of any interest to her. They were mine, they were archaeologically mine. If you dug through and into them, layers of my life were progressively uncovered. What hurt the worst was the loss of my Graham Greenes, which had been Bertie’s bottle books. Though Barbara had breast-fed our first child, Anna, by the time baby Bertie was born, some six years later, she had decided that anyone who goes through childbirth deserves a rest. I rather agreed, and was happy to give him his middle-of-the-night feed with a bottle. He would beam up at me, his silver-gold hair radiant as spun moonlight, and slurp away happily. I developed rather a neat posture in which I could tuck him into the crook of my left arm, place the bottle delicately in his mouth, and keep open a paperback Graham Greene in my right hand. I read fifteen of them before Bertie started to sleep through the night.

I later bought, from Greene himself, a set of his Collected Works, each of the twenty volumes signed by him, which he’d formerly kept in his flat in Paris. I associated them, naturally enough, with Bertie. They were gone as well.

My books were gone. The effect was tremendous, unexpected, physically distressing. I felt dizzy and nauseous, I kept having to sit down to regain my equilibrium. My books were gone. It prompted the questions, at once psychological and metaphysical: Was I still me? Who am I, with no books?

You may think this was an over-reaction. It was. Nobody died, yet what I experienced was a form of grief. After the initial pain and disbelief there was an aching sense of loss. If there was something clownishly self-indulgent about this response, the intensity of my reaction was fuelled from other sources, from the accumulated frustration, anger, and hurt that the loss of love entails.

But as time passed – we’re only talking six months here – what I increasingly and surprisingly felt was no longer a sense of loss, but one of release. All those books, all that dust, all those metres of shelf space crammed higgledy-piggledy with paperbacks with their spines coming off, assorted hardbacks with torn or missing dust wrappers, maps and guidebooks stuffed into corners, bits of stuff and guff and fluff. For a rare book dealer I treat my personal books with shocking disregard. I cram them into shelves, dog-ear pages as I read, remove dust wrappers and then lose them. I suppose I still regard most books, as academics do, as mere objects of utility.

Though there may be comfort in large numbers of books, there’s very little beauty. The art dealer Anthony d’Offay, who began as a rare book dealer, once told me that of all the serious art collectors he knew “only two” have large numbers of books anywhere in the house. His point was not that big-hitting art collectors are semi-literate, but that almost all of them regard large assemblages of books as ugly. Viewed in this way (you have to skew your head to the side and look carefully) what you see when you look at a lot of books is paper in various stages of decay. Over time it progressively becomes yellowed with age, musty, acidic, bowed or brittle, ready for decomposition. It takes longer for paper than for humans, but the process is the same, and the results similar.

I like to think that when Philip Larkin memorably said “books are a load of crap,” he was not trying simply to shock. Perhaps he was also observing something about books as physical objects, and about the properties – the genesis and eventual decline – of paper? Paper begins when trees are reduced to vat-fulls of yucky mulch; the books that are one of the results of this process can fertilise and nourish, to be sure, but there is something ineluctably physical, something that suggests decay and death, something disgusting about them.

And the curious feeling that was gradually unfolding in me, I recognised, was relief. Books, if not exactly crap, were certainly a burden. It felt free to live in a space that wasn’t shelved on all sides, surrounded and defined by books. Large numbers of books seem to consume the very air. There’s something insistently aggressive about them, something clamorous: “Look at me! Read me! Remember me! Refer to me! Cite me! Dust me! Rearrange me!”Perhaps this is why working in libraries has always made me feel anxious. Academic friends reminisce with delight about hours spent in Duke Humphrey’s Reading Room at Bodley, the Beinecke at Yale, the Ransom Center at Texas, the old Reading Room at the British Library. I’ve spent my time in each of them, anxiously plotting an escape.

Too much unread, too much unknown, too poignant the sense of the futility of writing books. The British Library has millions of the damn things. Looking at the stacks I am often struck, not by the range and determination of man’s quest for knowledge, but by the utter fatuousness of it all, the vanity.

Samuel Johnson – himself heavily represented in libraries – makes the point with characteristic zest:

“Of many writers who fill their age with wonder, and whose names we find celebrated in the books of their contemporaries, the works are now no longer to be seen, or are seen only among the lumber of libraries which are seldom visited, where they lie only to shew the deceitfulness of hope, and the uncertainty of honour.”

If books are a joy to visit, they are a relief to escape. My books were gone? I didn’t need them anymore, they’d done their work, and I’d done mine. All of a sudden there was a new sense of lightness. This didn’t merely consist of more space in which to hang pictures, it meant that I felt less surrounded by my own history. I was a bookish person. I still am, only without many books. It was a giddy sensation. I felt deracinated, disassociated. And free.

I suppose you need to be a certain age (I was 55) to feel thus unencumbered; I would have taken it worse twenty years before, when I needed the books not merely as working tools, but as objects of self-definition. But now? Now they had become memento mori, and I was glad to take my eyes from them. I came to feel that if Barbara hadn’t initiated the process, I would (or at least should) have done it myself. I began, even, to feel grateful to her, for releasing me from these fusty appurtenances. She’d always had an acute sense of the fatuousness of academic life. Well, now all those books were her problem.

After all, readingis what matters, and has always mattered to me. I can’t not do it, any more than I can stop eating or breathing. Left on my own for the briefest of moments – on a bus, in the toilet, waiting for the dentist – I am acutely uncomfortable without something, anything, to read. In extremis I take my wallet out and read my credit cards. (One of them has five sevens in the number!) I can’t stop reading without feeling anxious, and extinguished: I read, therefore I am.

We are accustomed to talking of things and events “influencing” our “development”: of the formative power of parental support or abuse, gifted or sadistic schoolteachers, changes of faces and venues, disappointment and delight in the pursuit of love, successes and failures in search of some goal or other. When we think of such experiences we too often neglect the way in which reading, too, has made us. Who would I be abstracted from what I have read, how would I have been formed? If I try to extract some sense of myself now, at the age of 64, which is in some way independent of the myriad effects of my reading, there is only puzzlement. The same sort of bemusement that occurs when I wonder what it would have been like to have been an astronaut or a lion, grown up in Bangladesh or Peru, met an angel or been abducted by aliens.

I am inconceivable without my books. You can’t take them away, they are inside me, they are what I am. Yet when the relations between reading and living are considered, it is often in passing, and frequently results in a formulation similar to that once made by Angela Carter: “You bring to a novel, anything you have read, all your experience of the world.” That’s an unremarkable thing to say. What else would you “bring” to a novel? A prawn cocktail? But if you reverse Carter’s formulation, and also claim that you bring to life everything that you have read in novels – some version of the Emma Bovary thesis – you get a much more interesting, and less studied, topic.

How do books make us? I don’t know. Putting the question at this level of abstraction suggests a topic for a psychologist or sociologist, and I have no taste for such generalities. What I want to know is how my books have made me. To recall, to reread and to reencounter the books that filled my mahogany bookcase, and continue to fill my present self.

What fun to pursue such a train of thought. To go into my (sparsely) book-lined study, turn that reading lamp inwards, and to reflect. To look at those (few) books in the dawning recognition that what they furnish is not a room, but a self.

Available on Amazon:

Short-listed for the PEN/Ackerley Award 2010

EXCERPTS FROM REVIEWS (To access the full review, where available, click on the link):

The Times (Jeanette Winterson): “Outside of a Dog is a bibliophile’s version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Long distances, great company and a particular view of the world are the pleasures of this eccentric memoir…. Gekoski is funny, and it’s delightful to read about serious books and laugh at the same time…every reading is insightful about the text and moving about people, about the choices that we make, about love…. Gekoski is endearing to read for his childlike enthusiasm for … well, for everything. There is nothing cynical orclever here, just real intelligence and true feeling — and the sense of humour. I suspect that everyone reading this charming memoir will be writing their own list of 25 hits on the flyleaf.”

The Spectator (Selina Hastings): “extravagantly enjoyable, lively, candid, and wonderfully well-written…. It is this voice that makes Outside of a Dog so irresistibly appealing. Rick Gekoski is a superb narrator, vivid, colloquial, funny and tough. He is an inspiring literary critic, engaging vigorously with his chosen texts; and he has a novelist’s gift for creating character.”

The Sunday Independent (Christian House):”a wonderful account of a life immersed in books….The unifying force is the quality of Gekoski’s writing, which reads like a performance from a seasoned raconteur: extremely funny and seamlessly structured….a heady mix of great literary invention and populist product….Many of the books form springboards for his polymathic rambles. It’s a message lucidly and gracefully delivered in this warm and witty volume.”

Metro (Tina Jackson): “Gekoski reveals himself to be a benign raconteur, infusing his tales with learning leavened with wit and warmth…. the result seems to be a man who loves books but also has a great lust for life.”

The Economist: “Clever, man and boy, Mr Gekoski casts a critical eye on the beat generation, on his own shortcomings, on the rise of feminism and the ever deadening hand of university life…. This is a book for anyone who has ever wondered how many books there might be time to read: funny, wistful and filled with a longing finally satisfied.”

The Guardian: Synopsis of reviews.

The Financial Times (Emmanuelle Smith): “A funny, irreverent melange of literary criticism and autobiography.”

The Irish Times (Eamon Delaney): “Gekoski is an awkward character who likes to rock the boat…. a reader’s reader and his enthusiasm is palpable. He is also an ambitious reader. This child-like enthusiasm for unconventional experience is endearing… you don’t know where he’s going next. This is an exasperating read at times but it is utterly compelling. God bless his honesty.”

The Independent (Jonathan Sale): “What this book lacks in canine chit-chat it makes up for in provocative memories of volumes which Rick Gekoski has read…. Outside of a Dogis like Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch without the football.”

The Telegraph (Michael Arditti): “Above all, both [Susan] Hill and Gekoski embody the virtues of wide-ranging, deeply felt and considered reading. In an age of Google web-bites and supermarket discount sales, this is much to be cherished.”

Rare Book Review (Colin Steele): “a wonderful raconteur…a frank, witty, and always entertaining description of an extrovert life. Outside of a Dog is wonderful company for whenever and wherever you read.”

The Economist: BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2009

The Scotsman: BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2009

The Listener, New Zealand (Guy Somerset): “Cheer and intelligence are the qualities that shine through his books. Gekoski is a tremendous racanteur…and Outside of a Dog tells many great stories.”

The Melbourne Age (Dianne Demsey): “Gekoski has a way with words. With wit and insight he describes the impact writers… have had on his life, and conversely the way his life impacts on his reading…. (he) continues to explore the marriage between books and life, providing the reader with much pleasure and insightful illumination”

The Evening Standard (Diary): “Writer and rare book dealer Rick Gekoski’s new book Outside of a Dog, published last week by Constable, explores the role that 25 seminal books — from Dr Seuss’s ‘Horton Hatches the Egg’ to Sigmund Freud’s ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ — have played in his life. Peter Ackroyd, on hearing Gekoski’s original intention to write such a ‘bibliomemoir’, commented archly to the author: “Darling boy, why don’t you write about something interesting?” Given the book’s rave reviews, might Ackroyd be reconsidering his judgement?”

The Literary Review (John Sutherland): ““a remarkable journey through the book world….in which Rick Gekoski has done many good things in return for the good things books have done for him. Not the least is this funny, touching, rawly candid memoir. I love the man.”

The Sunday Telegraph (Anne Chisholm): “a comically self-aware account, half confessional, half boast, of his life as a compulsive reader…This is an intelligent, consciously disarming book, packed with ideas, jokes, good stories, small triumphs and larger regrets.”

The TLS (Eric Korn): “a subtle and successful bookman…With his nose alert for dry rot, Gekoski rarely goes out by the same door as in he wends.”

The London Review Bookshop (Christmas Choices 2009): “Rick Gekoski is as witty and entertaining as he is well read.”

The Telegraph BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2009 (Penelope Lively): “Great fun.”

Canberra Times: “frank, witty and always entertaining…. Outside of a Dog is wonderful company for whatever and wherever you read.”

The Sydney Morning Herald (Catherine Keenan): “wry, earnest and frequently charming… the simple elegance with which Gekoski presents these insights , how neatly he intertwines ther literary and the personal. One of the joys is that it cuts through the truisms about books being civilising or enlarging… It reminds us, first and foremost, that books matter. There is something both welcome and fresh about this.”

The Los Angeles Times (Susan Salter Reynolds): A “delightful memoir. What’s different here is that Gekoski doesn’t go gooey about books — there’s no hagiography, just companionship and some good advice…. an effervescent witness to literature.”

PN Review: “Gekoski is one of those ornaments of contemporary literary culture….[with an] urbanely persuasive, often amused tone of voice…”

Blog Reviews: Natalie Galustian; A Common Reader; Stuff and Nonsense; The Crime of it All


In the UK: We regret we are not a new bookshop, and cannot send out individual copies. But copies, including signed copies, may be purchased from the bookseller Nick Burrows: or from the London Review of Books bookshop. And of course you can buy a copy from The Times online, The Independent, Borders, Amazon UK, Waterstones UK, Blackwells UK,

Orders from the USA: sends books free worldwide.

For the Australian edition, published by Peribo

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Tolkien’s Gown and Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books

“a veritable feast of the tales behind some of the most iconic titles to have graced British publishing, and fascinating anecdotes about the authors who wrote them…. a gem of a book, tales about Tolkien, Potter, Orwell, Larkin, Hemingway and more, representing a treasure trove of trivia for book fans. Really, every library should have one!” (Publishing News)

Based on the radio series Rare Books, Rare People, from BBC Radio 4, Tolkien’s Gown tries to do several things at the same time. It profiles the publishing history of 20 major books (largely) from the twentieth century, and describes the ways in which they have later entered the rare book trade. My own involvement in the sales of these books – and often with their authors – is described. There is, to be sure, some serious content, but the idea is to tell stories about someone having fun, and wishing to share it with his readers.

Chapter I


In my Catalogue Number 10, issued in the spring of 1988, as item 243, I offered the following book:

“Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita, London, 1959. First English edition, a presentation copy from Nabokov to his cousin Peter de Peterson and his wife, dated November 6, 1959, and with the author’s characteristic little drawing of a butterfly beneath the inscription.”

The price was £3250, and it sold, though I do not remember to whom. A few weeks later, I received a letter from Graham Greene, who was himself a book collector, and to whom I regularly sent my catalogues.

Dear Mr. Gekoski,

If your copy of Lolita, which isn’t even the true first edition, is worth £3250, how much is the original Paris edition inscribed to me worth?

Yours sincerely,

Graham Greene.

What a great book! The Olympia Press Lolita inscribed by Nabokov to Graham Greene! The book is an ultimate example of what rare book dealers call an “association copy” – one presented by the author to someone of importance. In this case, Greene was not only important in himself, but he had played a crucial role in the publication of Nabokov’s novel. The inscription to Greene added immensely to the book’s value – as an uninscribed copy, at the time, was worth about £200.

I wrote back immediately, in similarly minimalist style.

Dear Mr. Greene,

More. Would you care to sell it?

Yours sincerely,

Rick Gekoski

In the (very) short correspondence that ensued – none of the letters ever more than a couple of sentences – Greene indicated that he might consider a sale, as he also had the first English edition inscribed to him, and didn’t feel he needed both. I said that I would happily pay £4000 for the Paris edition, and he agreed that he would bring it on his next visit to England. I replied that the weather in London was bracing, and that only a fool would brave the heat in the south of France. He should come without delay, if only for the sake of his health.

In the event it wasn’t until November that the meeting took place, in his room at The Ritz. As he opened the door to his room, I was surprised by how tall he was, and by the expressiveness of his wet cornflower blue eyes. After we had drunk a quick vodka, he produced the Lolita: published in two small dark green volumes, redolent of the Paris of the 50s. The inscription was breathtaking: “For Graham Greene from Vladimir Nabokov, November 8, 1959,” which was followed by a drawing of a large green butterfly, under which Nabokov had written “green swallowtail dancing waisthigh.”

“It’s fabulous,” I said, “almost perfect.”

He raised his eyebrows, just a little. What was wrong with it?

“In a perfect world it would be inscribed in the year of publication [which was 1955], and it would be the first issue, instead of having the new price sticker on the rear cover.”

He nodded. He was known to be fond of bibliographic niceties.

“But it’s terrific – real museum quality.”

“I’ll talk,” he said.

“I’ll give you £4000.”

“You fail to understand me, Mr. Gekoski, in the light of what you say I will take less.”

“On the contrary, Mr. Greene, you fail to understand me. I won’t pay less.”

He considered this for a moment.

“Would you like another vodka?” he asked.

We spent most of next few hours talking about Conrad and Henry James. I think he began to take me seriously when I said that I thought that Henry James was funny, and couldn’t understand why no one else did. He agreed wholeheartedly. We drank another vodka, in total critical harmony.

“I’m not in that league,” Greene said, with the conviction of someone who had thought a lot, reached the truth, and did not regret it. “Conrad and James were Grade A novelists. I’m Grade B.” We had a final vodka in his honour: Grade B was pretty respectable, we reckoned.

He promised to keep in touch, which turned out to be more than a polite form of leave-taking. A few minutes later, I was decanted into Piccadilly by an obliging porter, clutching my Lolita, having made a new friend.

At nine the next morning the doorbell of my flat rang, and the pony-tailed, amiable figure of Elton John’s lyricist, Bernie Taupin, peered in. Did I have anything in stock, he asked cautiously (I was in a bathrobe, ingesting aspirins), that his wife might buy him for a Christmas present?

However bad your hangover, you don’t send Bernie Taupin away, much less his chequebook-clutching wife. Well, I admitted rashly, I did just buy something rather nice….

It was more than nice, it was irresistible: Bernie was both a Greene collector and a Lolita-admirer. Once he had his hands on the book, it was clear he was never going to let go of it. I’d made a mistake, and I realised it immediately. Never sell a great book too quickly: you need time to do a little research, have a think, get the price to the right level.

“How much is it?” asked the willing Mrs. T, seeing the bibliophilic lovelight gleaming in her husband’s eye.

“Nine thousand pounds,” I said, hoping this might put her off.

She didn’t even blink, or ask for a discount. Five minutes later, I had a cheque, a headache, and an appalling sense of regret. I wasn’t sure if I had undersold the book – nine thousand pounds was a lot of money in those days – but I was certain I had under-owned it. You like to savour a wonderful book, have it near you for a while, until the magic begins to wear off, and commercial imperatives reassert themselves. Alas, poor Lolita, I hardly knew her.

Lolita was first published by Maurice Girodias in Paris in 1955. Girodias, who described himself as “a second-generation Anglo-French pornographer,” was the son of Manchester-born Jack Kahane, whose Obelisk Press had published Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in the 1930s. Girodias founded the Olympia Press in 1953 and was committed, like his father, to publishing good quality, sexually explicit literature in English. Some of his authors were writers of the highest quality – Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, Henry Miller, Jean Genet, J.P. Donleavy – while others (often writing under pseudonyms) were straightforward purveyors of what Girodias termed DBs (dirty books). These were usually issued under different imprints, one of which was puckishly entitled The Traveller’s Companion Series. But even his pornographic books (The Enormous Bed, Rape, How To Do It, With Open Mouth) were literate and well written. Many were ghosted by well-known writers like Christopher Logue and Alex Trocchi, who were always happy to make a few francs while having fun.

At this time Vladimir Nabokov, with a couple of respectfully reviewed books out in America, was a relatively obscure figure, quietly but brilliantly lecturing at Cornell University. He was anxiously seeking a publisher for his new book:

“the enormous, mysterious, heartbreaking novel that, after five years of monstrous misgivings and diabolical labours, I have more or less completed. It has no precedent in literature.”

But Lolita had been turned down by five successive American publishers. Though The Partisan Review had agreed to publish an excerpt, it stipulated that it must appear under the author’s own name – which Nabokov, worried that a naive American public would identify the first-person narrator with himself, declined to allow.

Prospective publishers thought Lolita, however much they admired it, a dangerous book. Its middle-aged hero, Humbert Humbert, is sexually besotted with a 12 year old. Lolita is certainly not the adolescent nymphet portrayed by Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film: she weighs five and a half stone, has measurements of 27-23-29: palpably still a child. The novel was doubly shocking: not only was it a sympathetic rendering of the inward world of a paedophile, but the object of his affections is a sexually aware, provocative little girl. It is not wholly surprising, in the repressive atmosphere of the 1950s that one prospective American publisher recommended that it “be buried under a stone for a thousand years.”

It is continually surprising to me that Nabokov got away with it so comprehensively, but if you look at the opening paragraphs, you get some idea of how:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of my tongue taking a trip of three steps down the plane to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”

This faces the issue squarely enough, but the playfully sensuous elegance of the language is enough to make the most hardened paedophile detumesce. Whatever this is going to be, the opening announces, and whatever disapproval it may engender, this is not your usual DB.

Indeed, several readers of the resulting edition demanded their money back. This wasn’t up to the usual Olympian standard, they complained. You could hardly even understand it, as if it were written in a foreign language. Which, of course, it was. English was for Nabokov, as it had been for Conrad, not a second, but a third language. (Refined Europeans of the period usually had French as their second language). Nabokov’s first publications, dating from the early 1920s, were in Russian, and were followed by several books in French. It wasn’t until 1941 that he published his first book (The Real Life of Sebastian Knight) in English. His English, again like that of Conrad, was suffused by a sense of discovery and delight in the linguistic possibilities of a new tongue. It was sensuous, arcane, both idiomatic and formal, roiling with breathtaking and unexpected constructions. It sounded fabulously new, freshly invented, and it is all too easy to imagine it spoken in a Russian accent.

Failing to find an American publisher with the nerve to take on the book, Nabokov was advised to send the manuscript to Girodias at The Olympia Press. It was an unlikely choice, based on a combination of ignorance and expediency, and was almost certain to end in tears.

Girodias was something of a rogue, a cosmopolitan bon viveur who made up each year’s prospective publishing list by inventing a bunch of steamy titles, issuing a prospectus for them, and then desperately trying to find someone to write them once the orders came flooding in. Nabokov, by way of the most extreme contrast, was a highly refined Russian aristocrat, committed only to the highest forms of literature.

But Girodias had a great eye, loved Lolita, and agreed at once to publish:

“I was struck with wonder, carried away by this unbelievable phenomenon…the story was a rather magical demonstration of something I had so often dreamed about but never found: the treatment of one of the major human passions in a manner both completely sincere and absolutely legitimate. I sensed that Lolita would become the one great modern work of art to demonstrate once and for all the futility of moral censorship.”

Knowing that Girodias was notorious as a publisher of sexually explicit work, Nabokov wrote to him with some concern:

“You and I know Lolita is a serious work with a serious purpose. I hope the public will accept it as such. A succes de scandale would distress me.”

But succes de scandale is just what he got, and it was the best thing that could have happened to him. If the naïve college professor thought that the publication of such a book might be met with universal admiration, Girodias certainly did not. He liked a fuss: it was good for sales. After a couple of quiet post-publication weeks, the book was banned in France, under pressure from the English Home Office. After a quickish legal battle, the ban was rescinded, but it had brought the novel directly into the public eye.

When Graham Greene chose Lolita as one of his three best books of the year, in the 1955 Christmas issue of The Sunday Times, it brought a hitherto obscure novel to the notice of the English reading public. But the book rocketed into notoriety when John Gordon, the editor of The Sunday Express, attacked it in response to Greene’s praise:

“Without doubt it is the filthiest book I have ever read. Sheer unrestrained pornography. Its central character is a pervert with a passion for debauching what he calls ‘nymphets’, girls aged from 11 to 14. The entire book is devoted to an exhaustive, uninhibited, and entirely disgusting description of his pursuits and successes.”

Greene responded by forming The John Gordon Society – members included Christopher Isherwood, Angus Wilson, and A.J. Ayer – which was dedicated to examining and condemning “all offensive books, plays, paintings, sculptures and ceramics.” An immediate campaign was begun to make sure nobody used dirty words in games of Scrabble.

Though pleased by the burgeoning sales, Nabokov was a little chagrined by the furore: “My poor Lolita is having a rough time. The pity is that if I had made her a boy, or a cow, or a bicycle, Philistines might never have flinched.”

He had been sufficiently anxious about his position at Cornell to wish to publish the novel under a pseudonym, but Girodias had eventually talked him round. If the novel ever had to be defended in court, appeals to its literary merits would certainly be undermined if its author wouldn’t own up to it.

American publishers soon renewed their interest in the book, noting how many copies of the Olympia edition were being imported into America, unprosecuted by the vigilant moral guardians in U.S. Customs. Greene was actively hoping to get it published in England. Soon enough, Nabokov no longer needed Girodias, whose lax business practices he found increasingly infuriating. The contract they had agreed gave Girodias a generous one third of any future English language and translation rights, which were likely to add up to a lot of money. Nabokov tried to find a way to break the contract, but couldn’t.

After some negotiation, Girodias agreed to a smaller percentage, and Putnams published the book in America. It sold over 100,000 copies in the first three weeks, the hottest best seller since Gone With the Wind. There was some reaction against the novel – the town of Lolita, Texas changed its name to Jackson, and Groucho Marx declared he would wait six years to read it, until Lolita was eighteen – but most reviewers admired the novel for the masterpiece it certainly is: an engrossing mix of tragedy and comedy, opulently well written. The following year it was published in London by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, on November 8, 1959.

So it turns out that the date on the inscribed Olympia Press Lolita that I bought from Graham Greene was publication day of the English edition – a fact that I discovered somewhat later. But when a copy of the Weidenfeld and Nicholson Lolita turned up at Sotheby’s two years ago, inscribed on the same date, I seemed to be the only person in the rooms who recognised its significance. I bought it relatively cheaply and sold it relatively well. As for the original copy that I purchased from Graham Greene, I bought it back in 1992 for £13,000, and soon sold it on to a collector in New York. He got a bargain. When the book reappeared at a Christie’s sale in 2002, it fetched the astounding price of $264,000. I was sitting in the rooms at the time, feeling astonished, and sick with seller’s remorse.

Still, I’ve done pretty well out of Lolita, though not as well as Nabokov or Girodias. On the proceeds, Nabokov was able to retire from his teaching position, to devote himself to writing and butterfly collecting. Girodias, suddenly rich from this unexpected windfall, opened two Parisian night-clubs, a restaurant, three bars, and a theatre. Five years later he went bankrupt.

Available on Amazon:


“This is essential reading for any booklover, but it is also a supreme example of a natural and skilled storyteller at work. It is wonderfully paced and full of rich and fascinating detail.” (Colm Toibin)

“Dealer Rick Gekoski’s account of some of the rare books that have passed through his hands is packed with tantalising trivia, laced with great humour and full of detailed descriptions that will have any bibliophile slavering.” (Independent on Sunday)

“Rick Gekoski lets us in on some of the remarkable volumes he has bought and sold, as well as the ones that got away. It’s an engaging read, and he marries a skill for story telling with some insightful literary criticism…” (The Telegraph)

“through it all shines his infectious love of books. Delightful reading for book collectors.” (Sunday Telegraph)

“Hugely entertaining account of the great books and their worth as literature – and as first editions – by the fabulously infectious American bibliophile. Think Bill Bryson, only on books.” (Tatler)

“Rick Gekoski’s Tolkien’s Gown is an irresistible mix of droll humour, shrewd literary criticism and fascinating anecdote, by a dealer in the fetishistic world of modern first editions. The perfect bedside book for bibliophiles.” (David Lodge, Sunday Telegraph Books of the Year 2004).

“A fascinating backstage look at his own rare-book trade, with some memorably bizarre encounters with literary giants, William Golding and Graham Greene among them.” (Selina Hastings, Sunday Telegraph Books of the Year 2004)

“….page after page of delight …. a worthy enough counterpart to the essays of Charles Lamb.” (Sunday Times)

“Rick Gekoski, a modern-first dealer who has dragged many a huge beast of a book back from the jungle and brought it blinking in the spotlight like a 40ft ape…. Gekoski likes to be around a better class of book than the rest of us (Ted Hughes’ copy of Sylvia Plath’s Colossus; Sons and Lovers in transcendentally rare dustwrapper); and by skill, luck and chutzpah has managed to.” (The Guardian Bibliophile)

“No lover of fiction will want to miss out on the skeletons in these closets.” (The Big Issue, Pick of the Week)

“He is (also) a very good storyteller….a winning combination of glee and disbelief. The book is full of cherishable stories.” (Sunday Telegraph)

“Book aficionados will be titillated by Gekoski’s wealth of inside knowledge and tasty gossip morsels.” (Financial Times)

“an irresistible collection of stories and anecdotes” (Classic FM Book Review)

“Without exception, his anecdotes and analyses are riveting and entertaining. I couldn’t put it down. It’s a superb primer for rare-book dealing…. Gekoski’s little histories of the great modern firsts are replete with insight and hilarious reminiscence….One can see that Gekoski had no future as an English lecturer. He can write and talk.” (The Australian)

“…a beautifully produced volume. …a rich mix of reminiscence, literary history and hard price information….Gekoski’s judgments are always interesting…and his reminiscences of authors and collectors…are priceless. Few books bridge the chasms between biography, bibliography and the market place: this one does.” (Rare Book Review)

“With a raconteur’s flair, Gekoski traces the path between the composition of a literary work and the creation of a valuable object. Central to these highly polished, entertaining and often amusing stories is Gekoski himself. The book dealer finds himself written into a William Golding novel, is given Tolkien’s academic gown, acquires Sylvia Plath’s The Colossus and Other Poems inscribed to Ted Hughes and ends up on the receiving end of hostile phone calls from J.D. Salinger’s lawyers. A pure pleasure

“Of particular interest is not so much Gekoski’s understanding of book values but his carefully telescoped literary insights…Rick Gekoski’s love of books is infectious. He makes you want to revisit the books worth reading, or at least, appreciate the dusty tomes on your bookshelf you had forgotten about.” (Seattle Times)

“For no obvious reason, business at the Readers Loft in DePere, Wis., was double the usual for Black Friday. “It seemed that a lot of people were out browsing and in groups,” manager Melissa Olm said. For customers looking for help, she added that her handselling favorite is Nabokov’s Butterfly: And Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books by Rick Gekoski (Carroll & Graf), which she called “one of those quirky book-lover titles. It’s nonfiction essays on well-known authors and their book collecting history.” (Publisher’s Weekly)

“Tolkien’s Gown is set to keep the chattering classes chattering for quite some time…Rick really is a great raconteur. Each chapter is told with distinguished style and sartorial elegance, and the content remains highbrow without being at all stuffy or exclusive…It’s an inspirational book, and more importantly a lot of fun to have around, much like its author.” (Zembla)

“wildly readable…. irresistible for anyone who digs real-life yarns stuffed with triumph, tragedy and a litany of mishaps…” (Toronto Star)

“There is something about Rick Gekoski that is larger than life. It may not be strictly English trade practice but certainly adds to the gaiety of the nation.” (The Book Collector)

“Erudite, gossipy and delightfully readable…If you are wondering what to buy someone bookish for a present, look no further than Tolkien’s Gown. It’s opinionated, it’s funny, it’s stuffed full of deliciously arcane trivia. It’s a cracker.” (The Mail on Sunday)

“A treasure trove. There’s nothing dusty about this fellow: he’s an enthusiast whose academic background ensures his grasp on literature (the book is full of pithy literary criticism, inserted almost as throwaway remarks) but whose instinct is always for the terrific human story behind the book…. A bibliophile’s delight.” (New Zealand Herald on Sunday)

“This is not just a book of war stories from the rare book trade. There are philosophical diversions, clever apercus and entertaining digressions…beautifully produced, entertaining, thought-provoking, provides great value remarkably cheaply.” (New Zealand Press)

“Oh the joy of a great book that should never end….A fantastic book for literature lovers and a solace for would-be authors.” (North and South)

“You couldn’t ask for a more entertaining guide than Gekoski, who sparkles with laughter and sheer relish.” (Wellington Dominion Post)

“He has arguably invented a new genre…When he steps aside from being funny to make a big critical point, he often gets it dead right….Tolkien’s Gown is full of fascinating things.” (PN Review)

“I wonder why we don’t have an annual dinner where awards are given? I would nominate Rick for Best Memoir, by a long shot. His chapters…all breathe fresh air into what have been very stagnant waters for way too long.” (Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America Newsletter)

“This utterly charming volume of bibliophilic memoir rests on a particular dilemma. Gekoski is a rare-book dealer, as well as a lover of literature: every book he treasures, he might also have to sell. From Graham Greene’s copy of Lolita to a rare Ukrainian Animal Farm, Gekoski delightfully spices each essay on the book with the hard facts of how much cash changed hands, and a plethora of priceless asides – some gloriously gossipy, some ruefully wry. For all the fun, there is a serious subtext about what we value, and the bizarre nexus between price and worth, rarity and fame. The antithesis of fousty and dusty, with fatwas, lawsuits and an appearance in a Golding novel, this is a find indeed.” (The Scotsman)

“Gekoski writes with verve and displays considerable knowledge of literature and literary worth both financial and artistic.” (Year’s Work in English Studies, 2004)

“One of the Five Best Books on Bibliomania” (Wall Street Journal, 2010)

See also the blog entry by Observer columnist and Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, John Naughton.

Open post

Staying Up

I am the only football fan who has written a book containing an inside account of a year in the life of a Premiership team. OK, it was only Coventry City, but the season was 1997/1998, and we finished solidly in the middle of the league, and got to the quarterfinals of the F.A. Cup. I had the decidedly mixed experience of being there every step of the way, and it was by no means a comfortable journey. Football people are uneasy in the company of outsiders, and the book is chronicle of their unease, and mine. The result is a sort of travel book, with balls: a foreigner goes to a strange land, is feared and mistrusted, learns new languages and viewpoints, and eventually finds a modicum of acceptance. Not an easy process, but fascinating.

After Staying Up was published, two responses stood out, and gave me the most satisfaction. The first was from the redoubtable poet and critic Ian Hamilton (himself the author of Gazza Agonistes, and a Spurs supporter) reviewing the book in The Sunday Telegraph. Staying Up, he wrote, actually told us things about football we hadn’t known, “was richly comic” and “the year’s best soccer book by far.”

I could hardly have imagined a more satisfactory response, but I got one, and it come, modestly enough, in a reader’s report on The writer didn’t give his name, (he called himself “A Customer”) and was clearly at the other end of the literary spectrum from Ian Hamilton. He was obviously a passionate City supporter, though. He was one of us: “Fantastic reading best book I have read. I bought this book the very first day it came out on sale and it took me 3 days to read. I thought the way the book was written and no holds barred with some of the stories which mentioning no names got offended by if it was about me I would have been honoured.”

Can’t ask more than that, though one of the football fanzines panned it, on the lines “middle class wanker wants football players to be interested in him, rather than the other way round, and spends his whole time describing how frustrating it is,” which seemed fair comment to me.

Available on Amazon:


‘The 1997/1998 season at Coventry City was told, in brilliant detail, by Rick Gekoski, a fan who ‘got lucky’ in his own words and spent the campaign up close and personal with the team, management and chairman Bryan Richardson. The result was Staying Up Read again on its own it is an uplifting story …’
VITALFOOTBALL: Book Review: 20 Years On! December 2017

‘Richly comic…the year’s best soccer book by far.’ SUNDAY TELEGRAPH

‘A classic, some wonderful insights into the mind of Premiership Man.’ FOOTBALL 365

‘If I had known that you were going to write this sort of book I would never have allowed access to myself or the team. Having said that I think it’s one of the best books about football ever written. The closest anybody could get to what it’s really like.’ Gordon Strachan to the author.

Open post

Conrad: The moral world of the novelist

Closely based on my Oxford D Phil, 1972.

I don’t believe in the brandishing of keys to writers – Conrad is no more a lock or door than a casket. The central opposition or tension in Conrad is that between his ‘vision of personal autonomy’ and his ‘vision of social responsibility’ should be seen as complementary, not irreconcilable… 

Available on Amazon:

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