I sing again the hymn of the broken sets! The bookseller in me cringes, but the reader in me has some cause to rejoice when, now and then, I find an unlikely bargain in stray volumes. A bourgeois convention of the late 19th and earl 20th centuries were these impressive and largely unread sets of the complete works of this or that immortal. Meant as much or more for display as use, even the less expensive "cabinet editions" published with cloth covers rather than fine, leather bindings -- call 'em petit bourgeois, or poor relations -- were nonetheless remarkably well made furniture indeed. That's meant that some, if not all have survived their original owners remarkably well, if not often intact as complete sets.
It does not always break my way, may I say. On my most recent visit to the remains of a local used books chain, I had the heartbreaking experience of finding a broken set -- gorgeous volumes all -- of the great and neglected American historian, John Lothrop Motley (1814 – 1877.) Seventeen volumes the set originally ran to, of which the bookstore had ten. I would have bought any part of the set had even one title been complete, but alas, it was not to be: three volumes of four of his History of the United Netherlands (1860 - 1867), two volumes of The Rise of the Dutch Republic (1856), one volume of three of his letters, etc. Each lovely book was priced at twenty bucks -- an outrageous price for incomplete titles, however pretty the binding! Still, I almost bought the stray letters. Maddening. Awful. Discouraging indeed.
It is often, but always so.
Today's example being Goethe's Works, published in an unspecified number of volumes, on some unspecified date, in this "Library Edition" by "The Publisher's Plate Renting Company, New York." (Great name.) This edition, translated into English by one John Oxenford, ESQ. (1812 – 1877), and illustrated charmingly by some unacknowledged artist, I know to be incomplete because the seller was kind enough to tell me so, and because of what I did not find in the ten volumes I bought, namely "the Works." (Missing Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, for instance.)
Now as a set to sell, these books have no real value. A complete set might -- just might -- find a buyer online, but a broken set, missing at least one masterpiece? Not so much.
Still, for the reader like me, broken sets can be a boon; here for example I have The Autobiography of Goethe: Truth and Fiction: Relating to My Life, (Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit, 1811 - 1833), complete in two volumes, and had for a song. A true set, a complete set of Goethe in English I could probably never afford, but this? Well, this one I own, and have for some years now.
And what have I read of it, this broken set I picked up as a bargain? Not much, frankly. I've read in it. But just tonight I needed a break from both the last of my vacation pulp, and from reading William Cowper for my October event. I happened to be in the room in the house where a few stray sets live, and there was Johann Wolfgang von G., and there were the two volumes of his autobiography, and so to bed with a good German.
If I hadn't, (bought the broken set, taken up volume one of the his autobiography some years later,) I might never have read the delightful story of "the boy" tossing his toy dinner service, and then the family's good china ,piece by piece out a high window for the pleasure of hearing them smash on the street below. Better, I learn that "the boy" was encouraged in this mischief by the entirely respectable old gentlemen -- stout, Frankfurt Burghers all -- who lived across the street and who cheered loudly each fresh explosion. Not expected.
Had I not bought this broken set, what then would be the odds against finding Goethe, let alone Goethe "the boy" and finding him charming?