"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Thursday, 19 July 2007


Collecting, beyond a certain point which is quickly reached, can very easily become an obsessive form of behaviour. Some kinds of collecting, I can't help feeling, are slightly madder than others, and I'd like to think my personal obsession is less futile than some, though I can't be sure. I am not certain when it started but I became a collector of those tiny hardback 4inch by 6inch World's Classics quite a long time ago and now I have 411 of them. 619 were issued, the last (Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment) in 1973, so I still have some way to go if I want to attain the Holy Grail of a complete set. They were first published in 1901 (I have a few of those first editions now more than 100 years old) by Grant Richards and later by Oxford University Press who still use the title for their paperback World's Classics series, a few of which are still using the old texts and translations from the hardback days. Obviously, there are eccentricities if you think of this as a representative selection of the world's great writing, or even English writing, (no Hardy but bucketloads of Constance Holme for example) but it would sustain you quite well on a desert island. They are beautifully made books but it's interesting that a recent attempt to relaunch the series with the same loving standards of production petered out after 20 volumes. Perhaps the paperback has now established an invincible hegemony. But I like them. I used to pick them up for 40 pence but I have seen some commanding well over £10 each, in one case, in an antique shop in Windsor, £18. The average for a good condition second-hand volume would be around £6-8 in the UK. which makes my collection potentially worth £2-3000. But would I part with them?

If you are interested there is a dedicated website prepared by Geoffrey Milburn (who generously pretends that some of the rest of us are co-compilers but the lion's share of the work in this wonderful catalogue has been his). It can be found at www.edu.uwo.ca/worldsclassics.

On reflection...yes, it is mad, but it could have been old vacuum cleaners or beer-mats.

PS No, Madam, in answer to your question I haven't read all 411 but I am not dead yet!

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