Beginners Guide to Collecting Books

What makes a book collectible?

I am often asked by non-book collecting friends what makes a book collectible and how can you tell if a book is valuable. Here are some thoughts on these matters.

Firstly, for a book to be collectible, there needs to be someone out there in the world who desires to own it! That may seem obvious, but really is the sine qua non of any collecting. Similarly, one may ask what is a particular book worth, and one rather obvious answer is “Whatever someone in the marketplace for books is prepared to pay for it!”
For instance, a book dealer may have a rare volume displayed in his or her shop with a price tag of say $500 on it, but if the book has been unsold in the shop at that price for 5 years, then who is to say that it is worth the price on the tag?

If we dig a little deeper into these issues, the four major determinants of “worth”, which may not be the same thing as “value” or “price” are form, content, rarity and condition. Lets consider these four issues in turn.


By form, I mean the physical presentation of the book. Is it a hardback or paperback? Is it a first edition or a reprint? Is it printed or published by a desirable firm? Is it in an attractive or elegant binding? Is it illustrated? Is it signed by anyone special, such as the author, illustrator or a significant previous owner? Does it have an interesting, well designed or famous bookplate? Some of these issues is worthy of some consideration.

Hardback or Paperback

Generally speaking, hardback, or more properly, ‘cased’ books are more collectible than paperbacks. There are many reasons for this. Most books are first published in a fully bound and cased format, at a relatively higher price, before they are then reprinted as a less expensive paperback in card covers, often with the gatherings of the pages glued to a back-strip, in what is misleadingly called ‘perfect bound’. Most paperbacks that one sees are perfect bound. In recent years, in an attempt to contain costs, large format first edition ‘trade paperbacks’ have been published at the same time as an equivalent fully cased hardback first edition. Here in Australia, for instance, in the 21st century, most first edition novels are only available as trade paperbacks, when in the UK and USA they are often published as both hardbacks and trade paperbacks. Often it is then only the trade paperback that is exported from the UK to Australia for retail sale.
Cased books for the last almost 200 years have been bound within board covers that are covered with a substance that can be labelled or decorated. The coverings were traditionally types of animal skins, leathers of various types, or vellum. In the early 19th century, book cloth was popularised as a cheaper and durable alternative to animal products.

Since the later part of the 19th century, cased books have also been covered by paper wrappers called a dust wrapper or dust jacket. These were initially disposable, plain paper covers to protect the printed pages before they were cased by a book binder, or to protect them on the journey between the publisher and the retail bookseller. As the years went by, the dust jackets were seen as a useful, if perhaps ephemeral part of the book, which could also be decorated and so be useful in the marketing of books. For the collector of Modern First Editions (however defined), the dust jacket is a highly desirable if not essential component of the book for it to be deemed complete and collectible.
Some paperbacks are highly prized and collectible, particularly certain books which were only published in paperback format, or books from certain paperback publishers, such as Penguin, Albatross, Tauchnitz and Pan.

First editions

Everyone knows that first editions are very collectible and are often highly desired. But if you give this a little thought, it does require some explanation. One thing that you can be sure of is that every book that has ever been published has existed as a first edition. Indeed, the vast majority of books, once published in their first edition, have probably failed to sell sufficiently well, and so have never been  reprinted or re-issued! So why the importance of first editions?  Collectors will generally say that the first edition is the first appearance of the book and as the initial form of the book that the world ever sees, it has a particular power and importance beyond the raw text. They will also say that the first edition also represents the author’s freshest and new ideas and inventions. However, the first appearance of a book, which is strictly the first state of the first impression of the first edition ( I will explore these terms more in a following blog) in the original publisher’s binding and dust jacket will often contain errors (known in the book collecting world as points) that are most commonly introduced by the printer, but sometimes by the editor or the binder. Thus the earliest form of the book may not represent the author’s true intentions, and it may be later states that correctly reflect the text as presented in the author’s manuscript.


Generally, the original publisher’s binding of  a book is the most desired form. However, from the earliest times, it has been quite common for books to be given different bindings after their purchase, that are often more ornate and attractive than the publisher’s binding. Sometimes, particular book buyers or collectors had a preferred or personalised form of binding that they always applied to their books. Some private, public and school libraries also adopted this practice. From  early Victorian times, it was quite common to replace the publisher’s cloth binding with a half or quarter bound casing that used different leathers and boards, often with marbled end papers. On occasions, the publishers themselves produce a limited number of copies of a book that are bound in higher quality, more expensive bindings. 

In mid to late Victorian times, many publishers adopted more highly decorated cloth styles, with the use of impressed or embossed gilt designs or coloured cloth decorations, sometimes on beveled or more elaborately incised boards. All of these superior Victorian cloth bindings are very collectible in their own right. In addition the cheap ‘yellowback’ bindings of crime and sensational novels of the late Victorian and Edwardian age are also now highly collected.

From the early years of the twentieth century, books were mostly bound in cloth which had become very plain and undecorated, particularly after World War One. As the cloth became plainer, so the dust jackets gradually became more highly decorated. In the Art Deco period, from the early-1920s until the end of the thirties, an expectation of elegantly decorated dust jackets began to become the norm for high quality books. For some crime fiction and thrillers, some of the dust jacket decorations became quite lurid and sensational. There are collectors out there for all of these. A few authors even designed their own dust jackets, Evelyn Waugh with ‘Vile Bodies‘ and Ian Fleming with ‘Moonraker‘ are two famous examples, and Len Deighton designed a few decorated Penguin covers in the 1960s.

Signed books

Names or signatures in books can add to their desirability. However, it does matter whose name and signature it is. ” To little Freddy  from Auntie Nell, Xmas 1984, XXX “, scrawled across the title page of any book with purple broad tip Texta pen will almost certain detract from the books desirability. 

However, a copy of the James Bond book ‘Dr No‘, neatly signed “Ian Fleming” on the end-paper would be desirable. If it were inscribed “Peter, here is my latest book; your brother Ian” it would probably be more desirable. If it were to be signed “to Sean Connery from Ian Fleming, loved your performance”, it would be very highly desirable. I’m sure that you get the idea.  Certainly a plain signature, probably written en masse for a bookstore appearance, is probably less desirable that a dedication to an unknown person, and certainly less desirable than a dedication to a famous person or a person who has some significant relationship to the book. 
Ownership signatures from famous, previous owners of the book, neatly written on an end-paper are also highly desirable. In this regard, a copy of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”, with Sir Winston Churchill’s ownership signature would be desired by all collectors of war books or Churchilliana.


Bookplates are the often decorative labels pasted onto the end-papers of books to assert ownership. Many people had personalised bookplates designed for them and the presence of a discreet and tasteful book plate does not generally lessen the desirability of a book; if the bookplate is particularly well designed, or sufficiently grotesque  and unusual, or if it belonged to a famous or significant person, then it probably adds to the desirability of the book.


Content is a fairly straight forward matter to consider in book collecting. By content, I mean the text and the illustrations (if any). 


If the book is a classic or prize winning or ground-breaking work, then it will be intrinsically more desirable. For most authors, there are one or a few stand-out titles which are the most collected. For George Orwell for instance, I think that everyone would identify “Animal Farm” and “1984” as his most desirable books. On the other hand, almost anything by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen or the Brontes would be very desirable.
The nature of the text is also important. Most collectors prefer the detective fiction of Dorothy Sayers to her religious works; similarly, the Narnia books and the three space fiction novels of CS Lewis are more collected than his academic or religious books. Most collectors would rather have Rider Haggard’s “King Solomon’s Mines” or “She”, rather than his scarce first book, “Cetewayo and his White Neighbours”, or his later books on farming. 
Charles Darwin’s “On The Origin of Species” probably is a unique book in its profound impact on human ideas and life. Any copy of this text has some interest to collectors, from the first edition of 1859 down to the many modern reprints that have appeared since.


Illustrated books also have a content collectibility over and above the written text. Many books have been published in un-illustrated first editions, which, after the book’s success as text has been established, are re-issued in lavishly illustrated and finely bound editions that many collectors crave. For collectors of English books, the golden age of book illustration is generally held to be the period 1875 to 1914.
I personally have collected editions of the Alice books of Lewis Carroll illustrated by many illustrators over the last hundred years or so. Although the original illustrations in the first editions of 1865 and 1871 were famously and iconically created by Sir John Tenniel, many famous illustrators have produced wonderful illustrations since then. In a future blog, I will discuss these books and illustrations.


Rarity is determined by a number of factors. Age is certainly one, and although old books are not necessarily highly collectible, there is no doubt that age will have an effect on survival of any book, and so will affect rarity.
The size of an edition is also a key factor. The first edition of the first book by an unknown author is usually published in very small numbers, as the publishers want to limit their risk of losses. If the book is successful, then the publisher can print more copies and issue new editions, according to the book’s popularity. Nowadays, if a film is made of the book, new editions are published to take advantage of the marketing of the film.
An interesting recent example of the first book phenomenon is offered by the Harry Potter books of J K Rowling. The first book in the series, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone” (1997), as the first book by an unknown author, was published in a standard small first UK hardback edition of 500 copies in laminated boards, along with a paperback edition of a few thousand books. 300 of the 500 hardbacks were sold to the English School Library system, where they will have been read to destruction, leaving only 200 copies for book collectors. These now attract massive prices, around $50,000, in specialist book auctions. Copies signed by Rowling will cost even more.
The second book “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (1998) and third book “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (1999) were both published in UK hardback first editions of about 10,000 copies each. These are also highly collected and quite expensive, generally costing around $1000 , depending on condition and issue, rising to $7500 if they are signed by the author.
By the fourth book “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire“, (2000), the Harry Potter phenomenon had well and truly taken off. The first UK hardback edition numbered one million books! Although these are still collectible, they are easy to find, and not very expensive. The same is true for the last three books, published in massive first editions and therefore relatively common and easy to find. Interestingly, the first UK hardback edition of the first James bond book “Casino Royale” (1953) is also very rare and highly desirable, due to a small edition being printed (about 4500 books), of which half went to the UK Public Library Service and were read to destruction… a similar story to the first Harry Potter book.

In a parallel story,  the first edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species“, was published by John Murray on 24th November 1859 in a first edition of only 1250 copies of which 1170 copies were available for sale. 500 of these were purchased by Mudie’s Library and all of the rest were pre-sold before publication, mainly due to the intense interest in the subject at the time. Many ended up in institutional libraries, so that the number of copies in private hands, which are those that tend to become available to the rare book trade, was very limited. A first edition can still sometimes be offered for sale in 2015, but it will cost around $250,000. A copy famously sold for around this price on the 150th anniversary of its publication in 2009.


Condition is the final factor that I will consider here. Book collectors want the best possible condition of any book that they want to collect. The book should ideally be complete, in the original binding and dust jacket, with no marks, tears, scribblings, sticky tape scars, water or light damage, library detritus or stains. It should ideally look like a brand new copy of the book on the day of issue, before it has been read.
This Ideal is not always attainable, and so the more scarce and desirable a book is, the more collectors will compromise on condition. Small stains and small repaired tears and creases in the dust jacket are often acceptable. All illustrations must be present in an illustrated book, but looseness of tipped-in illustrations can be acceptable and can be easily repaired. The title page must be present and all of the text must be present, but some people will accept the loss or disfigurement of the free front end paper (the blank page often found at the front of a book, before the title page). Looseness or defects in the binding, usually found in the “gutters”, the region where the pages are attached to the boards, are grudgingly acceptable to most, and the absence of tissue guards, the protective tissues for illustrations, particularly frontispieces are common and also generally acceptable.
Foxing, the appearance of brown stains due to a mould within the paper is common and also acceptable if not too severe. (A well known comical book on book collecting, illustrated by Ronald Searle, is famously titled “Slightly Foxed, but Still Desirable”, echoing the description often given in book dealer’s catalogues.)
Not surprisingly, the older a book is, the more damaged and worse for wear it is likely to be. Most collectors will accept this and take a pragmatic view of this issue. Thus I expect a much higher standard for my Terry Pratchett first editions, all of which were published after 1983, than my Charles Dickens first editions, all of which were published between 1834 and 1870.

Chris’s Book Blog Site

This is my attempt to create a web presence about Old and Rare Books and Book Collecting. It is an entirely personal viewpoint and represents my own views and tastes, and so will reflect my own collection and collecting interests. I will try to link to useful resources and devise original posts that may be of interest to some book collectors out there.

My collecting tastes are very catholic but are generally in the area of English and children’s literature from the 19th and 20th centuries. Wow, (I hear you say), that’s a huge scope. Yes it is, but I narrow it by collecting authors who I enjoy and like, books that I admire for their form as well as their content, and some particular areas of English writing, including some travel writing by favourite authors, and detective and crime fiction by authors who use this genre to explore particular times, places and cultures.

I am also an avid collector of Penguins, now going for 85 years. I will try to gather together here some useful information, ideas and sources for Penguin collectors.

Charlotte Jay

Charlotte Jay aka Geraldine Mary Halls

Charlotte Jay was the pseudonym of an Australian mystery writer and crime novelist born Geraldine Mary Jay in Adelaide on 17th December 1919. She attended Girton School and the University of Adelaide. Jay worked as a shorthand typist in Australia and England, and as a court stenographer in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. She wrote nine crime books under the Charlotte Jay pseudonym. Their originality earned her a place in mystery novel history.

 These included:
 • The Knife Is Feminine (1951) Her first novel set in Sydney. This has never been published in Australia.

 • Beat Not the Bones (1952) This book won the first Edgar Allan Poe Award of the Mystery Writers’ Association of America for Best Novel of the Year in 1954.

 • The Fugitive Eye (1953)
 • The Yellow Turban (1955)
 • The Man Who Walked Away (US Title: The Stepfather) (1958)
 • Arms for Adonis (1960)
 • A Hank of Hair (1964)

 After a single novel published in the UK using the name Geraldine Mary Jay, The Feast of the Dead (US Title: The Brink of Silence) in 1956, she also wrote novels under her married name, Geraldine Halls, through the later part of her writing life. In the USA, all these books were published using the name Charlotte Jay.

These included:
 • The Cats of Benares (1967)
 • Cobra Kite (1971)
 • The Voice of the Crab (1974)
 • The Last Summer of the Men Shortage (1977)
 • The Felling of Thawle: a novel (1979)
 • Talking to strangers: a novel (1982)
 • This is My Friend’s Chair (1995)

 Geraldine married Albert Halls, an Oriental specialist, who worked with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Geraldine and Albert Halls traveled to many exotic locations which Geraldine used in her books. Only The Knife is Feminine is set in Australia. The other books are set in Pakistan, Japan, Thailand, England, Lebanon, India, Papua New Guinea and the Trobriand Islands. Geraldine and Albert returned to Australia in 1971 and spent the latter years of their lives in Adelaide where Albert was an antique dealer.

Charlotte Jay died as Geraldine Halls in Adelaide on 27th October 1996.

Come to the Library at the Dock at Harbourside Boulevard in Melbourne’s Dockland precinct to hear a discussion and readings all about Charlotte Jay called The Knife is Feminine at 6.30-7.30 pm on Wednesday 10th June 2019.

Sketch drawing by Alissa Duke

The three sisters who became literary giants

The Three Sisters who became Literary Giants 

This is a talk that I gave on the three Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne. 

Left to Right: Anne, Emily and Charlotte Bronte

It was broadcast on the Overnights program on RN on the ABC on Tuesday 26th February 2019.

 To listen to the recording of the talk, you can go to:

 or look for “The three sisters who became literary giants” via the ABC Listen App. 

Here is the poem by Emily Bronte which I used to close the talk by reading the last verse.

Riches I hold in light esteem
And Love I laugh to scorn
And lust of Fame was but a dream
That vanished with the morn–

And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is–”Leave the heart that now I bear
And give me liberty.”

Yes, as my swift days near their goal
‘Tis all that I implore
Through life and death, a chainless soul
With courage to endure!

Emily Bronte March 1, 1841


Philip Kerr 1956 – 2018

Philip Kerr: Creator of Bernie Gunther

Philip Kerr 1956-2018

Very sad news this weekend, with the announcement of the death of Philip Kerr on Friday 23rd Mach 2018. Starting from a career in advertising, Philip Kerr will be long remembered for his wonderful series of books featuring Bernie Gunther, a hard-bitten, essentially moral, German policeman; Gunther is not without his own weaknesses and demons, but when faced with moral choices, always seems to make the right choice, all-be-it often with a very hard edge.

The twelve book series started in 1989 with “March Violets”, which is written in a very punchy, hard-boiled style, owing much to Hammett and Chandler, but set in a Germany of 1936, where the Nazi regime is consolidating its power and preparing for war. Bernie investigates the murders of family members of a rich German mandarin of industry, and leads us through the dark and dangerous world of pre-war Berlin, ending up in the Dachau concentration camp.

The next two books, “The Pale Criminal”, published in 1990, and “A German Requiem”, 1991, continue in a similar vein and style, with stories set in Berlin in 1938 and Vienna in 1947 respectively. These first three novellas were re-published together by Penguin in 1993 under the title “Berlin Noir”.

The fourth book in the series, “The One from the Other”, did not appear until 2006. It is set in Munich in 1949, and is set in the world of post war former Nazis and all the recriminations found in a defeated nation. Gunther is now a private detective looking for a former Nazi war criminal on behalf of his wife. 15 years on, Kerr’s style has become more mature and he has found his own authentic voice, not having to rely on the hard-boiled tricks of the first three stories.

The remaining eight books, which appeared between 2008 , “A Quiet Flame”, and 2017 “Prussian Blue” explore Gunther’s career between 1934 and 1956, with several involving a flash-back flash-forward structure, which is managed very smoothly, are all written in the mature late style and are an absolute joy to read.

I have read all of the Bernie Gunther books twice, both in the order in which they were published, and in the chronological order, which runs from book 6 “If the Dead Rise Not”, set in 1934 to book 11, “The Other Side of Silence”, which is set in 1956. My enjoyment was not dependent on the order of reading, but I do suggest that the first three early titles should perhaps be read first, as the stylistic change may jar somewhat.

The only bright news about Bernie Gunther is there is one more book, Greeks Bearing Gifts which is due out on April 3rd 2018. I have already ordered my copy and will read it with a mixture of pleasure and sadness.

2019 update

The final Bernie Gunther book was published posthumously in March 2019. Called Metropolis, it takes us back to the very beginning to see Bernie as a new member of the Berlin detective squad in 1928.

The Bernie Gunther Series

 1. March Violets 1989

 2. The Pale Criminal 1990

 3. A German Requiem 1991

 4. The One From the Other 2006

 5. A Quiet Flame 2008

 6. If the Dead Rise Not  2009

 7. Field Grey 2010

 8. Prague Fatal 2011

 9. A Man Without Breath 2013

10. The Lady From Zagreb 2015

11. The Other Side of Silence 2016

12. Prussian Blue 2017

13. Greeks Bearing Gifts 2018

14. Metropolis 2019

Vale Philip Kerr. You will be sorely missed.

1911 The Phantom of the Opera: Gaston Leroux

1911 The Phantom of the Opera: Gaston Leroux

The Phantom of the Opera was first published in French as Le Fantome de l’Opera as a serial in the magazine Le Gaulois from 1909 to 1910. It first appeared as a book in March 1910 under the same title, published in Paris by Pierre Lafitte. The story was based on some of the myths and stories associated with the Opera Garnier in Paris and a plot element from Carl Maria von Weber’s production in Paris of his best-known opera Die Freischutz.

Gaston Leroux (1868-1927) wrote more than sixty novels, but is now only remembered for the Phantom, largely because of the many stage and film versions that it has inspired, culminating in the now immortal musical version of Andre Lloyd Webber in 1986.

The first edition in English appeared in 1911, published in New York by The Bobbs-Merrill Company, with a coloured frontispiece and four double page folding coloured plates. This is the edition that most English-speaking collectors want to find. The dust wrapper is famously rare and most copies don’t have the dust wrapper present. 

Here it is the book and its wrapper.

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1902 The Hound of the Baskervilles: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

1902 The Hound of the Baskervilles: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1859-1930) most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, mostly appeared as the hero of short stories that were first published in The Strand Magazine, before being published as collected stories by the magazine’s publisher George Newnes. All of these are highly collectible, but the real prize for the book collector are the first editions of the four Sherlock Holmes novels; A Study in Scarlet (1887), The Sign of Four (1890), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and The Valley of Fear (1915).

The Hound of the Baskervilles is clearly in the Gothic tradition, with the misty, boggy Dartmoor setting, the tales of a supernatural hound, a cursed family, a dreadful face hinting at a ghastly death, and the Gothic Baskerville Hall. Doyle himself described the story as a “Victorian Creeper”.

 The story first appeared in serialised form in 1901-1902 in The Strand Magazine, accompanied by the very apt illustrations by Sidney Paget. The first book form, published by Newnes in 1902 is the most elegantly bound of all four of the Holmes Novels and is highly desirable. The top board, designed by Alfred Garth Jones, is shown below.

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1897 Dracula: Bram Stoker

1897 Dracula: Bram Stoker

Abraham “Bram” Stoker (1847-1912) was an Irish writer and theatrical manager, who spent most of his working life as the theatre manager and friend of the great actor Sir Henry Irving.
Stoker worked for about ten years to produce his most famous work, Dracula in 1897.

Part of the inspiration for Dracula came from a family holiday that Stoker spent at Whitby in Yorkshire in 1890, together with some childhood memories of seeing dessicated corpses in the crypt of a Dublin church. The result was Dracula, published by Constable in 1897 in a striking yellow cloth binding with blood red text. His publisher felt that the original text was a little too long and encouraged Stoker to edit his work to produce an abridged edition. This was published by Constable in 1901, in the most collectible dust wrapper of the 20thcentury.

The book has spawned more films and more imitators than any other book of the 19th or 20th centuries. Images from the 1922 silent film Nosferatuwith Max Schreck as Count Orlok and the 1931 film of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi in the title role have become modern icons.

The 1897 first English edition cover from 1897 and the famous dust wrapper from the abridged version of 1901 are shown below. Both were published by Archibald Constable.

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1894 Trilby: George du Maurier

1894 Trilby: George du Maurier

George du Maurier (1834-1896) was a Punch cartoonist and an occasional author. He was also the father of the actor Gerald du Maurier, grandfather of the author Daphne du Maurier and grandfather of the five Llewellyn brothers who inspired Peter Pan.

He was famous during his lifetime for his cartoons in Punch which gently mocked British society. His most famous cartoon was The Curate’s Egg, which introduced that phrase into the English language. He is best known today as the author of Trilby, a story which was initially serialised in Harpers Magazine in 1894, before appearing in book form in 1895.

It tells the story of an Irish girl, Trilby O’Ferrall, who worked as an artists model in the bohemian art world of Paris in the 1860s, and particularly gained its fame for the hypnotic relationship between the tone-deaf Trilby and her manipulative singing coach, Svengali. It has given us the words “Triby”, for the hat that Trilby wore, and “Svengali”, for a malevolent, dominant man. It also is the first instance of the phrase “in the altogether” meaning naked.

Generally speaking, the first appearance of a novel in parts or in a magazine the most collectaible form of that work. However, in this instance, most collectors would prefer the 1895 book edition to the magazine parts. My copy of the first English edition of 1895 is shown below.

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1891 The Picture of Dorian Gray: Oscar Wilde

1891 The Picture of Dorian Gray: Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s famous story of a portrait which ages while its human subject stays young, was first published in the July 1890 issue of Lippincott’s Magazine. The story was regarded as quite immoral by many at the time; indeed, the editor of Lippincott’s Magazine, J. M. Stoddart, removed about 500 words from Wilde’s original manuscript, without the author’s permission, because he held it to be indecent due to its homoerotic content. 

The first edition in book form followed in 1891, and because of the widely-voiced criticism of the initial version, Wilde wrote a preface to the book defending his point of view, although he did also agree to edit out a few of the more contentious passages. A complete uncensored version, in which all Stoddart’s excisions and Wilde’s enforced additional amendments have been reversed, was not published until 2011 by the Belknap Press.

The 1890 magazine form of the novella is famously scarce and the book form is much more likely to be accessible to the keen collector. Lippincott’s Magazine cover for July 1890 is shown below.

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