JEANETTE WINTERSON has a room devoted entirely to first editions. For her, books are objects of magical power, a source of strength and a place of worship. In a new essay, she examines her obsession. Portrait by MARK HARRISON

Jeanette Winterson
Friday 12 May 1995 23:02 BST

Book collecting is an obsession, an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. It is not a hobby. Those who do it must do it. Those who do not do it, think of it as a cousin of stamp-collecting, a sister of the trophy cabinet, bastard of a sound bank account and a weak mind. Money you must have, although not necessarily in large quantities, but certainly in disposable amounts. What makes money disposable is a personal question. My first First Edition was bought courtesy of a plastic sheet nailed over a rotten window. The price of fitting a new frame and glass was the price of Robert Graves: To Whom Else? Seizan Press, 1931, hand-set, cover by Len Lye.

Why choose the insistence of winter and a book? I took it home, lit my fire and made a proper sacrifice of my comfort. Snow and hail are nothing to happi-ness and I was happy. Two hundred copies and one was mine.

Signed and dated of course. I insist on that. The dealer from whom I bought it called it autograph hunting. I was young and he was worldly- wise, a big bear, a talking bear, who roamed expensive forests and grandly handed me my acorn.

Some years later I bought from him an oak: Virginia Woolf, Jacob's Room, 1922. As he said, expensive, but so rare to find one signed...

Rareness is all. Or is it? Not to the romantic collector who has fallen in love. Not to Don Juan who always finds a beauty on the shelf. If you love books as objects, as totems, as talismans, as doorways, as genii bottles, as godsends, as living things, then you love them widely. This binding, that paper. Strange company kept. Like women, the most exciting have had a lively past. One of my favourites in my own harem is a copy of The One Who is Legion (1930) by Natalie Barney and given by her with a fond inscription to her lover, the painter Romaine Brooks.

Soul and body have no bounds...

What is the relationship between the inner and outer? Between the text and its context? Why a signed First Edition and not a Penguin Classic?

The prosaic answer, the answer of the investor, would be bibliographical; that many of the now recognised classics, not having been recognised as classics at the time of their printing, were issued singly or separately, if they were poems, and in extremely limited or private press editions in the case of both poetry and prose. Such editions are beautiful even at their most workmanlike. They are a durable pleasure. They are, without any self-consciousness, what The Folio Society and its kind would like to be. They are worth possessing in their own right. They are original just as the texts they wrap are original. The making of a book and the creating of a book come together only once in the history of a book. The text will transcend its time, the wrapper and the binding and the paper and the ink and the signature and the dedication can't. All that is caught (or lost) at a single moment. All that becomes a reminder, a museum, a backwards eye into a forgotten place. As historical objects, as antiques, First Editions have all the virtues necessary to a collector; archival interest, market value, display, rarity, temptation.

For the lover, who collects in order to keep the beloved ever by her side, there is more than virtue, there is passion.

I was brought up without books. An early unprinted existence where paper was something pasted on to walls and likely reading matter was either The Bible or the Army and Navy Stores catalogue, always open at underwear.

There was nothing perverted in this; without proper heating and in chilly Lancashire, a thermal one-piece was the essence of God; all-protecting, embracing, saving, generous. I still have a talent for sleeved vests, although mine now come from the Burlington Arcade, but without one of my early cast-offs, I might never have been brave enough to buy that First Edition. I am wearing one now, book and vest. I have been wearing one since I was a small child, book and vest. Books and vests bound up together. Both protect me.

Brought up without books, my passion for them was, if not directly forbidden, discouraged. At that time I knew nothing of First Editions and their special lure but I associated books with magic. Their totemic qualities aroused me, and I believed that to possess them was power. In the difficult years of an evangelical childhood, which is and is not Oranges are not the only fruit I used books as Bram Stoker's Van Helsing uses holy wafers, to mark out a charmed place and to save my soul.

Save my soul from what? From ordinariness, from habit, from prejudice, from fear, from the constraints of a life not chosen by me but strapped onto my back. How to make the burden fall? Through Books. Language caught and made to serve a master. Ariel across time and space.

I trust books, and a wild trust is part of passion. If "Nature never did betray the heart that loved her" then why should language? Nature was not forbidden to me, and it was through her silent speak- ing that I began to understand the physical power of special objects, a power evident in my own library. Books that have the power to move.

Never lie. Never say that something has moved you if you are still in the same place. You can pick up a book but a book can throw you across the room. A book can move you from a comfortable armchair to a rocky place where the sea is. A book can separate you from your husband, your wife, your children, all that you are. It can heal you out of a lifetime of pain. Books are kinetic, and like all huge forces, need to be handled with care.

But they do need to be handled. The pleasure in a book is, or should be, sensuous as well as aesthetic, visceral as well as intellectual.

There is a book of mine that gives me immediate bodily delight: Twelve woodcuts by Roger Fry, set and printed by Virginia and Leonard Woolf at the Hogarth Press in 1921. One hundred and fifty copies were bound, and because the woodcuts are so lovely, I am sure that many of the copies were broken up and wall-mounted. In her diary entry, Virginia Woolf wrote, "150 copies have been gulped down in 2 days. I have just finished stitching the last copies - all but 6."

Is it the hand-decorated marbled-paper wrappers, or the thick cream insides, or the fact that she stitched this book that I have before me now? It is association, intrinsic worth, beauty, a commitment to beautiful things, and the deep passage of the woodcuts themselves. Passages into other places. A smuggler's route into what is past and what can never be past.

I hesitated over this book before I bought it from my favourite dealers, Ulysses, by the British Library. It was expensive, and not strictly within the rules of my collection. Book dealers are a wily bunch, and if I needed a final argument, they had it. Unless I bought poor Roger Fry, he was to be sold to the University of Western Australia. I could not do this to an old friend whose art criticism had lit up the pictures on the wall. I could not condemn Roger Fry to a dry- as-dust-death-in-life glass case across the world. I bought him and I have not for a minute regretted it. That is the way with books. You regret only the ones you did not buy.

Passion. The secret passages matter. Where will the book take you? Like all love affairs this is an adventure, and it is absurd to be a collector who never reads his collection. There are such people, and in the 1980s damage decade, the investor collector, the poseur-collector and the money-bags bore did much harm to the true collector, who found that the free market had put expensive locks on what he or she could buy before.

There always have been businessmen who finally found themselves in hand with enough houses, enough boats and cars, to flirt with the arts for a veneer of culture. They buy paintings, and trade among the truly rare book-ends of illuminated manuscripts, but in the 1980s it was James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, Eliot and Wilde that the new-bloated rich began to buy but not to read. Television played its part; the Agent Orange of culture, puff a thing up beyond its measure, and for a time it grows so attractive, so desirable, so fruitful, so lush, and then it collapses, unable to sustain its ridiculous fake growth. Prices for Vita Sackville-West shot up ten-fold over about three years. Fortunately, I had already a copy of The Land (1926), inscribed by her and with a rather nice letter on the letterhead of Sissinghurst Castle, inviting a lady to come and view the manuscript of Woolf's Orlando. I have two signed copies of Orlando; the American First Edition which is rather grand on green paper, and the Hogarth Press edition, in its original jacket. Why do I want two? Well, why not?

Vita's prices have come down lately, which means that I might be able to find and afford a copy of King's Daughter (1930), with its original wraparound flyer announcing that she had won the Hawthornden Prize for The Land (remember "The greater cats with golden eyes"?). The award infuriated Virginia Woolf who said that Vita wrote with "a pen of brass". Quite often she did and that is why I sometimes turn down her books. I must be able to read and to long to read all that I collect. Well almost all...

I was in Bath a few years ago, and as usual popped into a second-hand bookshop. I find the supermarket approach of Waterstones and Smith's a depressing experience, and prefer to support small shops who still care about books as more than commodities. Just as I was leaving, having spent modestly and profited wonderfully, I noticed a privately printed edition of DH Lawrence's Pansies (pun on penses), a collection of his more violent, malevolent, and mostly unavailable poems, that seriously jeopardise his freebooting dark-god status. I am an admirer of Lawrence but not an uncritical one, and I know that, like Byron, he attracts men of little brain and lesser balls, who do not want to think but who are looking for a sign-writer to dress up what they call their sex-drive.

Pansies (1929) is not for them. It is a wonderfully funny book (I think) in which the woes of the world are alternately blamed on "Willie wet-legs" as Lawrence seems to label all men except himself, and "lesbians". One poem begins

Ego-bound women are always lesbian.

So now we know.

At the front of the book is a brooding drawing of the great man, and underneath, his attractive clear signature. I bought Pansies because it was in mint condition and a very good price. I had intended to sell it on to finance some other purchase, but it has amused me so much that I cannot part with it. I am not sure which fate Lawrence would have liked least; to have mouldered so respectably in genteel Bath, or to have been rescued, cheap, by one of those ego-bound women.

By now it will be clear that my collection concentrates itself, 1900- 1945 on those Modernists whose work I think vital. That includes major and minor writers of poetry and prose: HD, Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Sitwell, Mansfield, Barney, Radclyffe Hall, Eliot, Graves, Pound and Yeats. I am not overstrict about defining Modernism for the purposes of collecting, and I do buy related material, including, just now, some drawings by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. I would push backwards and buy some Oscar Wilde, and I very nearly did, when a fabulous collection came on the market recently. The trouble is that the collection, being sold via The Talking Bear whom I like, came from a man whom I do not like, and who had made himself a fat fee writing a saucy article about me for a low-rent rag. I suppose that hard-up literary agents must do anything to earn money, but there did seem to me to be a certain amount of irony in the prospect of a man selling available queers to pay the bills. I decided that I would not kindly help to pay any more bills and so, as things stand, I stand without Oscar. But not in spirit.

A collector has to have limits and I would not pay anything for a book I wanted, even if I had limitless wealth. What I try to do is to plough back money from books into books. And not only books. I limit my First Editions so that I can buy art and craft from men and women working now. I see it as a duty as well as a pleasure to use up any disposable income that I have on others who, like me, are in the business of making it new. But I want to maintain my living library. My direct association with those writers without whom...

It is a very personal collection. I use daily those books that for others are museumed. The glass case approach depresses me, makes books into porcelain, guts them out of what they are. It is not necessary to treat rare books like china. There are only two rules: wash your hands first and put the books away afterwards.

Americans like to keep their First Editions in slip cases, and my copy of Woolf's Jacob's Room came to me in a deep origami puzzle folding binding with a two-inch-broad spine of purple leather dressed in gold tooling. If the casual visitor wasn't impressed enough by all that, the tooling announced that the copy was "autographed". Ah well, as my American manager often says to me, "Jeanette, you just have no respect for Celebrity."

Gertrude Stein would have understood. In 1927, TS Eliot and his backer Lady Rothermere went to visit Stein in Paris at the rue de Fleurus, Eliot, somewhat sceptical of Stein and her methods, asked, "Miss Stein, on what authority do you so frequently use the split infinitive?" "Henry James," replied Gertrude.

I have collected quite a few of Gertrude's split infinitives, including the Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, signed by both of them. A favourite joke on my library shelves is an edition of Stein's Wars I have Seen (1945), which carries as a frontispiece such an entirely terrifying Cecil Beaton portrait of the great lady, that we have retitled her tome, "Wars I have Seen Off".

Dear Gertrude, all woman and twice the man. Soon after the Autobiography was published, the Left Bank magazine Transition printed a refu-tation of its "facts", by a string of artists and writers, including Matisse. The injured assumed that if a book calls itself an autobiography it has to be Realist. Not much has changed. I seem to have tethered my own life to a fiction. How dreary it is when a fact is a fact is a fact.

I have a copy of this issue of Transition and I was particularly pleased to get it because it belonged to TS Eliot. The book dealer from whom I bought it did not recognise Eliot's handwriting in the annotations, nor perhaps realised that he sometimes just scribbled tom on his work copies. I knew because the man who introduced me to the vice of book collecting, Simon Nowell Smith, edited Eliot when he reviewed for the TLS. Simon Nowell Smith has what I will never have; a Hogarth Press copy of Ash Wednesday, set and printed by the Woolfs, hastily bound in their mad wallpaper, and signed "To Virgina Woolf from TS Eliot".

The psychometry of books. At the risk of sounding like Madam Blavatsky, the mystic friend of mystic Yeats, I can confirm the signed First Editions offer a presence not found in any old book and never found in paperbacks.

Strictly speaking, psychometry is the occult power of divining the properties of things by mere contact. I do not recommend it as an alternative to reading but it is an exciting supplement. It is worth remembering that in the past any print-run of a book you love is likely to have been a very small print-run, and that those copies signed will be few.

I know that Edith Sitwell signed everything, including other people's books, but I am still glad to have her personal copy of Faade (1923).

It may be that the intensity of the moment, and the attitude of a time when books were not blas, has fixed itself into the cover and the pages and is only gently decayed by time. Books have isotopic qualities and the excitement a collector feels is not simply biographical, archival, historical, it is emotional. Emotion calls to emotion. A strange meeting of feeling that will not submit to ordinary analysis.

I confess that there is in my book hunts and book passions something pretty close to hoarding the hair of martyrs and the sweat of saints. My books are a private altar. They are a source of strength and a place of worship. I see no reason to refuse to bend the knee. What woman writer writing now can pass by A Room of One's Own (1929)? But for me, when I read my copy signed in purple ink, there is an extra power. Here she is and here she was, of private ancestors, the most complete.

When I had no books and had to learn everything I needed off by heart, and when I had to hide what books I had, I promised myself a library filled with the best editions I could afford. I have it now. Books bought out of books. A red room with deep chairs and a fireplace lit. Books of every kind, but no paperbacks, and certain shelves where the First Editions are. This is not my study, where there are plenty of paperbacks, it is a contemplative island cut off from busyness, set outside of time.

Close the shutters and turn up the lamp. The room is full of voices. Who are they that shine in gold like apostles in a church window at midday? There is more in my hands than a book. Pick it up, and the streets empty of traffic, the place is still. The movement is an imag- inative one, the secret passage between body and book, the connections known only to you. Intimate illuminations when the reader and what is read are both unaware of the hands of the clock.

The clock is ticking. Let it. In your hands, a book that was in their hands, passed to you across the negligible years of time. Art is indifferent to time, and if you want proof, you have it. Pick up the book. It is still warm.

'Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery' by Jeanette Winterson is published by Jonathan Cape on 25 May, price £9.99

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