|Wisden: it might start with one but....|
How did a Kiwi cricketing tragic half a world away from Wisden’s spiritual home catch the bug? Like many of my generation, I got the obligatory sporting biography at Christmas – it resonated with me and ever since I’ve collected cricket books quicker than the public turned on Jesse Ryder. In my formative years there was very little overseas cricket coverage on the television or the radio in Aotearoa, and before I embraced the digital age books opened a window to an unseen cricketing world – they are responsible for my love of the Windies.
Even during a short stint in England I didn’t see much of cricket’s bible – I didn’t really know what it was. I had occasionally seen a yellow dust jacket on a bookstore shelf but when you have no context a Malcolm Marshall biography holds more appeal (given my love of the Windies it’s still a close run thing). The little I had heard of Wisden I figured they were bedtime reading for British anoraks - it's hard to even get the current years’ copy in New Zealand. A quick flick through random matches in a copy I found at a book sale and I was hooked – the words brought contests to life like nothing else I’d read. When I purchased a box lot through TradeMe (New Zealand’s eBay equivalent) off a pensioner going into a retirement home I was done with buying every cricket book on offer – the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack filled that void.
The little yellow book opened up a world I didn’t know existed – not a secret society like a literary Freemasons, but a group of people who are more than happy to share their knowledge, especially with youngsters, and act as a mentor for those getting more serious. Yes, there are back room bookstore dealings with buyers sworn to secrecy on prices, or so legend has it, but for me that adds to the intrigue of Wisden.
Starting out, the Wisden jargon is at best confusing. Books are classified as hardbacks (with or without dust jackets), linens, paperbacks, rebinds or facsimiles. Each of those has different versions - with or without covers and adverts, Willows or Billings, Publishers’ Rebinds or the new Large Version as readership ages. It’s good to be aware of foxing, bowing, gilt, hinges, wrapper quality and the photo plate. For most people these things make as much sense as quadratic equations do a pre-schooler, but all you have to do is ask – there’s always someone willing to share their encyclopaedic knowledge.
For me, that’s my mentor. He’s not an old Luddite who sits in a darkened room admiring the golden glow of an envied full Wisden set (full, not complete; once the bug bites there’s always an upgrade needed somewhere) - he’s a normal bloke but with a book collection valued in excess of £100,000. In all honesty he could sell one of his early editions and fund my purchases of paperbacks and rebinds back until at least 1879 - in actuality, he does everything but that to help grow my collection. Just as an international cricketer has a confidante he can quiz over the finer points of his game, my mentor offers me a similar sounding board - online forums, dealers, specialty bookstores and online sites abound but the advice is never quite as personalised.
Of all the things I’ve learned, and been reminded of on numerous occasions, is the need to have a strategy. Not buy now, ask questions later, but a genuine idea of what you want to do, and what you want from your Wisdens.
Personally, I’ve steered away from hardbacks – as much because I brought 30 linens in one hit as the exorbitant cost of those with boards (unless you have a stockpile of Rio Tinto shares). With a lot of help, and an understanding wife, I’ve amassed all the linens, bar one, back to 1938 – if anyone has a spare 1941 I’m open to offers. From there back it’s paperbacks and rebinds; at least in fits and starts until the turn of the century - that part of my collection has more holes than a superstitious cricketer’s favourite jocks. I'll never have the funds to buy originals of the first fifteen (1864-1878), though the words don’t change in a facsimile edition so I’ll happily read them with unbridled joy – it’s about the cricket not the cover.
I’m not your usual collector - my Wisdens are in storage, as are all my cricket volumes. My biggest regret is that I don’t get to enjoy them as I had hoped but family comes first. With two young children, one less than a month old, my man cave and book room became a nursery and the bookshelves are fair game for an inquisitive young boy who adores books but treats them all as his personal possessions. I would likely wake to find him cuddling an 1892 rebind to his chest as he snored through my exasperated gasps. It means I'll get to enjoy them again when they claim their rightful place near the top of the bookshelf - by that time the house will be bigger, the bookshelf higher and the kids older. Many of the average series’ of my youth will be the stuff of legend as I age - isn't that the joy of time?
But more than that, I live on the other side of the world; not in the land of cucumber sandwiches and a South African top order – in the land of the long white cloud (for those overseas – Google it) we’re more likely to eat a pie sandwich and watch our South African ‘keeper debut against the country of his birth. Is being so far removed from the source an impediment? Yes and no. Hefty postage costs are expunged by a strong exchange rate and the internet doesn’t play favourites. I wish I saw more of the books in the paper, so to speak, just like I wish I lived in Jamaica so I could see more West Indian cricket – life is never that simple. However, it does mean that on occasion I buy a book just so I can see what one looks like - as I did with an old Willows, a Billings and even my first paperback; I’d never seen one in New Zealand.
There is much more I could ramble on about but I fear only a few readers will have got this far anyway – like collecting, once you start writing it’s hard to stop, and it was time I indulged my passion in print. If you’re getting started, check out the Wisden site and start asking questions – you’ll never look back, though you may have to hide your addiction from your loved ones. For those in the instant gratification generation, don’t fret, there’s a Wisden app on iTunes.
Maybe down the line I’ll make it into cricket’s bible - I wasn’t good enough as a player, so writing may be my only opportunity though Chris Martin might run me close with his debut test century. Thank you for building a nest egg, John Wisden – you regularly transport me to another cricketing time.
Check out the precursor to this piece: ‘The little yellow book – a cricketing bible’. Please post a comment below or tweet me @aotearoaxi – for me the discussion is one of the best parts of being a Wisden collector.
Some recent reading reminded me of the New Zealanders who have been named one of Wisden’s cricketers of the year – an interesting piece for another day.