Previous Prize Recipients
As a high school freshman, I began the lifelong task of building
a personal library. At that point, my passion for reading was in
its fumbling, defiantly precocious adolescent phase-I read the
"classics" more to prove that I could (and to show off, of course)
than because I had a real appreciation of their value. For the
first year, my taste in books wasn't what one would call "refined":
I bought the cheapest new copies I could find of the books I
thought I had to read to be smart. This led to quite a few Bantam
Classics editions of novels that I have yet to actually read (the
shiny spine of Uncle Tom's Cabin, for one, remains woefully
uncreased). However, by my sophomore year, I had read enough to
develop the vague intuition that I would rather enroll in a
semester of British Lit than American Lit. It was in the
ridiculously cumbersome textbook for that class that I "discovered"
the always intelligent, and often biting, phenomenon of British
wit, in the form of Jonathan Swift's An Indecent Proposal. At about
the same time, I stumbled upon Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to
the Galaxy series, and the marriage of these two manifestations of
British humor led to the writing of a Gulliver's Travel parody
written in an irreverent style picked up from Adams. It was a
shining example of brazen imitation, in which a "Marvin the
Paranoid Android"-esque anti-hero named Mangel Wurzel saves the
Pillilutians from a lumbering giant. I thought it was great at the
time; now I try to avoid thinking about it. But regardless of the
quality, or lack thereof, of my fictional endeavors, the story was
indicative of the extent to which British humor had invaded my
brain. I was immediately taken by its intelligence, understatement,
irony, verbal humor, and self-deprecation, as well its tendency to
embrace absurdity and eccentricity. Although styles of humor change
over the years, that peculiar brand of wit continues to be a
defining characteristic of British writing and has, in a sense,
come to symbolize British culture in general. It would take a more
astute literary historian than myself to trace this cultural
phenomenon to its roots, but perusal of nearly any recently
published British novel will show that the tradition of cultured
insolence is alive and well today.
To my mind, the unique combination of the sophisticated, the
sophomoric, and the satirical that comprises British humor doesn't
seem to lend itself to pristine, shelf-bound leather volumes. Like
the original audiences of Shakespeare's plays, composed of both the
poor masses and the pampered elite, my vision of the ideal volume
of Brit wit combines the classy with the plebeian: a sleek,
understated, sturdy, but well-worn paperback, preferably with the
previous owner's name jotted on the inside cover. I love finding
inscriptions in used books; seeing the name of someone who has
previously enjoyed a novel is almost as good as having someone
there to laugh (or smirk, as the case may be) right along with you.
On a recent whim, I actually went so far as to conduct an internet
search for the name of the previous owner of my copy of Addison and
Steele's Selections from The Tatler and The Spectator and found her
teaching English at a university in Indiana. We have since
exchanged e-mails; she remembered the book, as well as the class
for which she took notes in the margins, notes which have in turn
enhanced my own reading. For this reason I tend to avoid buying new
books whenever possible: despite the increasing aestheticism
applied to cover art and design, new books don't really have any
character. They're also ridiculously overpriced and, on top of
everything, lack that lovely, musty smell characteristic of old
Thus, most of my books were purchased at used bookstores, used book
sales, or antique shops around the Midwest. My family vacations
during high school usually consisted of visiting strings of small
towns in Iowa (my home state), Illinois, or Minnesota, and I made
sure we stopped in every used bookshop along the way. Most of these
little towns run together in my memory; consequently, I have a hard
time remembering the exact location of the stores where I purchased
most of the books. However, I can chart in detail how one author
led me to another, who in turn led to more writers and more books;
to use a hackneyed metaphor, Jonathan Swift and Douglas Adams are
the trunk from which my collection has branched out and flourished.
Reading Jane Austen led me to Anthony Trollope, Barbara Pym, and
Stella Gibbons; Malcolm Bradbury's Eating People is Wrong pointed
me in the direction of Lucky Jim; a passing mention in Noël
Coward's autobiography introduced me to Saki. Over the years, I
have, of course, purchased, read, and enjoyed books written on all
seven continents (even Antarctica, if you count Scott's Antarctic
journals), but no other national body of literature has managed to
attain the position of high esteem in which I hold the
I intend to continue the trend of letting books and authors find me
as much as I find them; it's like a never-ending treasure hunt,
with all the clues buried in the pages. However, I would also like
to add depth to my collection of works by individual authors whose
writing I particularly enjoy, such as Beryl Bainbridge, Evelyn
Waugh, and George Bernard Shaw. When the opportunity presents
itself, I would love to acquire older copies of those books that
I'm particularly fond of, although I'm hampered in this endeavor by
the typical fiscal restrictions of a college student. There are a
few tomes that I'm specifically hunting for, such as a 1947 first
edition of Present Indicative, Noël Coward's autobiography; a
copy of the Reverend Sydney Smith's collected writings, Twelve
Miles from a Lemon; and an edition of Chesterton's The Man Who Was
Thursday that wasn't published by Barnes and Noble or Dover Thrift
Editions (surprisingly, I have yet to find one in a used bookstore;
I'm starting to suspect that someone out there is hoarding all the
good copies). Eventually, I'd like to have such an extensive
collection of humorous British writing, comprised of both major and
minor literary figures, that I might thoroughly map out the
evolution of dry wit upon my bookshelves. If my present collection
is any indication, I'm sure to find this an entertaining endeavor
as well as a worthy one, for, in the words of Victorian novelist
George Meredith, "The well of true wit is truth itself."
Ms. Wonder won the 2nd-year prize in 2007
the collection described in the preceding essay.
Adams, Douglas. The Ultimate
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. New York: Ballantine Books,
2002. Paperback; good condition (slight wear to cover).
A great example of modern British popular humor-the satire is all
but hidden amongst the absurdity. This fairly recent edition
contains all five volumes of the renowned "trilogy".
Addison, Joseph and Richard Steele. Selections from 'The
Tatler' and 'The Spectator'. San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart,
and Winston, 1964. Paperback; decent condition (cover creasing,
some underlining and margin notes).
Amis, Kingsley. Lucky Jim. New York: Viking Press, 1958.
Cover design by Edward Gorey. Paperback; decent condition (some
stains on pages, cover is slightly soiled).
Austen, Jane. Emma. New York: Signet Classics, 1980.
Paperback; good condition (some wear to cover).
Bainbridge, Beryl. An Awfully Big Adventure. London:
Penguin Books, 1991. Paperback; condition noted below.
I went to great lengths to find a copy of this novel that wasn't a
tie-in with the 1994 film adaptation, and my search eventually took
me to the online catalog of a small used bookshop in England. It
wasn't in great condition when I got it, but its "well-loved"
appearance and excessive underlining are mostly due to my frequent
readings-it's one of my favorite books.
Bradbury, Malcolm. Eating People is Wrong. Chicago:
Academy Chicago, 1991. Paperback; good condition (fading on
Chesterton, G.K. The Man Who Was Thursday. New York:
Barnes and Noble Books, 2004. Paperback; excellent condition.
Coward, Noel. Play Parade. New York: Doubleday, Doran, and
Co., 1934. First edition hardcover; condition noted below.
I found this one inexplicably nestled amongst a bunch of books on
naval history in a small-town Illinois antique store that deals
primarily in refurbished furniture. It's in excellent condition,
with an introduction by the author himself, and contains my
favorite Coward comedy, "Private Lives".
Coward, Noël. Pomp and Circumstance. New York:
Doubleday and Co., 1960. First edition hardcover; condition noted
This hardbound first edition is the only novel Coward ever wrote;
it's a clean copy in very good condition, although the drab cover
seems to indicate that it once had a dust jacket that has since
gone missing. Of note is the diaeresis in Coward's first name, an
affectation he adopted during the latter part of his career which
is usually dropped by contemporary publishers.
Coward, Noel. Present Indicative: An Autobiography. New York: Da
Capo Press, 1980. Paperback; good condition (some wear and creasing
Dickens, Charles. The Pickwick Papers. Hertfordshire:
Wordsworth, 2000. Paperback; very good condition.
Disraeli, Benjamin. Ixion in Heaven. New York: Henry Holt
and Co., 1925. Illustrations by John Austen. Hardcover; good
condition (cover is worn, somewhat soiled, but pages are
A hardcover example from the little-known literary career of the
famous prime minister. It's most likely a satire of Disraeli's
political contemporaries; due to a general lack of readily
available information regarding Disraeli's writing, I've been
unable to fully comprehend the subtext, but I'm pretty sure he's
making fun of somebody in a very clever manner. It also includes
many stylish illustrations, several of them rather garishly
Fry, Stephen. The Hippopotamus. New York: Soho Press,
1996. Paperback; very good condition.
Gibbons, Stella. Cold Comfort Farm. New York: Penguin
Books, 2006. Paperback; excellent condition.
This is the most recently published book in my collection and, to
be honest, I only bought it new because I really liked the
illustrations on the cover. The comical drawings of the characters
nicely accompany the gently humorous satire of the novel.
Hornby, Nick. High Fidelity. NewYork: Riverhead Books,
1996. First paperback edition; good condition (slight wear to
Jerome, Jerome K. Three Men in a Boat. London: Dent and
Sons Ltd., 1974. Paperback; good condition (slight wear to
Munro, Hector Hugh. The Complete Stories of Saki.
Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1993. Paperback; good condition (slight
wear and creasing of cover).
Until very recently, Munro's stories were usually published in
"best of" anthologies, which I try to avoid. I found this little
brick of an omnibus in a used bookstore in some small town on the
Mississippi River. The only negative attribute of the volume is its
incredibly tiny typeset.
Munro, H.H. ("Saki"). The Unbearable Bassington. New York:
Penguin Books, 1947. First edition paperback; decent condition (the
plastic on the cover is starting to peel off and shows signs of
wear and tear, but the pages and binding are excellent).
Orton, Joe. Head to Toe: A Novel and Up Against It. New
York: Da Capo Press, 1998. First edition paperback; very good
condition (black mark along bottom of pages).
British black humor at its darkest, made even gloomier by the fact
that Orton was later brutally murdered by his homosexual lover. Up
Against It, a screenplay commissioned by the Beatles, was actually
deemed too cynical and bizarre to be filmed.
Pym, Barbara. No Fond Return of Love. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1982.
Hardcover; good condition (some mysterious stains on the inside
covers, but the pages and binding are good and it retains the
original dust jacket).
Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. New York: Maynard,
Merrill, and Co., 1882. Hardcover; very good condition (cover is
I found this literally "pocket-sized" edition in an antique shop in
Des Moines, along with half a dozen copies of Shakespearean plays
used by schoolchildren in 1905. It's a perfect example of why I
love browsing for books in antique stores: each volume was priced
at five dollars, and I took the whole lot home. This edition was
apparently designed for use by teachers-along with notes, it
contains suggested examination questions, such as "What is
Touchstone's agency in the play?" and "Write out your estimate of
Orlando", as well as a "Plan of Study" for instructors.
Shaw, George Bernard. Pygmalion. Baltimore: Penguin Books,
1959. Paperback; good condition (cover is slightly soiled).
Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy,
Gentleman. London: The Bodley Head Ltd, 1928. Introduction by J.B.
Priestley. Illustrations and decorations by John Austen. Hardcover,
possible first edition; very good condition (slight wear to
A hardcover edition of the first postmodern novel, it includes bold
illustrations and the famous "marbled page", although the equally
famous "black page" that traditionally follows the death of the
vicar Yorick has been inexplicably omitted. Perhaps in recompense,
the illustration on the inside cover has a centerpiece dedicated to
Strachey, Lytton. Eminent Victorians. New York: Harcourt,
Brace, and Co., publishing date unknown (post-1940). Hardcover;
condition noted below.
With this book, Strachey revolutionized the art of the biography,
bringing color and humor to a previously bone-dry genre. I've been
unable to determine an exact date for the publication of this
volume, but, after looking into the history of Modern Library
editions, it seems likely that it was published between 1940 and
1955. It's a hardbound edition in excellent condition and has the
original dust jacket, which has only a few minor tears and
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels and Other Writings.
New York: Bantam Books, 1984 (reissued edition, year unknown).
Paperback; decent condition (slight wear to cover, creased
This was the first book here to be acquired, purchased when I was
more concerned with price than quality of binding. However, it
holds a special place in my collection as the seed from whence my
interest in British lit and wit grew.
Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a
Hero. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1893. Hardcover;
condition noted below.
This was the first "antique" book that I ever bought, and also the
most expensive at a whopping $35; I purchased it at an
antique/bookshop in Des Moines when I was sixteen. It includes
eighteen detailed engravings of various scenes by Frank T. Merrill.
The binding is in excellent condition, and the embossing on the
cover is almost flawless.
Trollope, Anthony. Barchester Towers. London: Nicholas
Vane, 1949. Hardcover; condition noted below.
A clean, tight hardbound copy with the original dust jacket,
although the jacket itself isn't in the best condition. Despite
having been one of the most prolific and successful writers of the
Victorian era, Trollope is sadly underappreciated in the U.S.,
possibly because several of his novels satirize British politics of
Waugh, Evelyn. A Handful of Dust and Decline and Fall. New
York: Dell Publishing Co., 1966. Paperback; good condition (cover
is worn and slightly creased).
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Greenwich:
Appleby and Co., 1939. University Classics hardcover edition;
condition noted below.
This was a gift from my sister-well, not a gift so much as a trade:
her Wilde for my Steinbeck, but I feel that I got the better end of
the deal. It doesn't seem to have been stored in ideal
conditions-the cover is sturdy but faded and the pages are more
darkened with age than one would expect, although it does as a
result have that quintessential "old book smell".
Wodehouse, P.G. The Code of the Woosters. New York: Random House,
1975 (reissued edition, year unknown). Paperback; very good