Make Mine Rare

A day trip down local roads gives an up-close look at invaluable literary works by celebrated American authors.

Story by Chip R. Bell and Melissa Swindell

Characterizations are always fun for rich discussions. At what size does a pond become a lake or a yacht become a ship? How old must a car be to be considered an antique?  One characterization that is simple to classify is a rare book. It is rare when it becomes scarce. And, if there is a demand for the scarce item, its value goes up. 

First editions are popular designations for rare books. The publisher, not yet sure of a book’s future success, will often produce a small first edition print run, making those first prints rare if the author becomes famous. J.K. Rowling’s publisher only printed 500 copies of her first Harry Potter book, 300 of which went to schools. Might there be a first edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) gathering dust in your grandparents’ attic? What if it’s signed? The rarity of some books can be elevated if the item is signed or inscribed by the author. Inscribed means there is a note, not just a signature. 

The good news is you do not have to go to a fancy estate auction to see a rare book.  They are on display throughout the Lake Country area. Here are a few we spotted in our search.

Flannery O’Connor’s famous Southern Gothic work was written mainly at her home, Andalusia, north of Milledgeville. She wrote in the morning on a typewriter in her bedroom. Discarded drafts went into Flannery’s wastebasket. After she left her room to walk around the farm, her mother collected all the drafts from her trash and kept them. They are now preserved in the Russell Library’s special collections at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville. About 20 miles down the road, Georgia Writers Museum displays a signed first edition of Flannery’s book, “Wise Blood.” ABE Books, an online seller of rare books, values the book at over $12,000.

In addition to Flannery O’Connor’s works at the library, you can also see rare works by Pulitzer Prize-winning Alice Walker. While most of Walker’s archives are preserved in Rose Library on the Emory University campus in Atlanta, there are plenty of rarities to witness at Georgia College. When visiting Georgia College for this article, we read an unpublished poem Alice wrote to her older sister, Mamie. There were also heart-warming, handwritten letters to her sister on display.

Our next stop was the Uncle Remus Museum in Eatonton, which tells the story of author Joel Chandler Harris and his recording and publishing of the Brer Rabbit tales as told by Uncle Remus. The museum contains a treasure trove of rare items, each with a unique history. As a teenager, Harris went to work at Turnwold Plantation, just outside of Eatonton. He was a printer’s assistant for Joseph Turner and The Countryman newspaper. In Turner’s library at Turnwold, Harris had his pick of more than 4,000 books; his favorite was the fantasy book, “The Vicar of Wakefield,” by Oliver Goldsmith, a work Turner’s mother had read to him over and over as a child. Turner’s copy of “The Vicar of Wakefield,” likely read and re-read by Harris, is on display at the Uncle Remus Museum. 

Our final stop was the Morgan County African American Museum (MCAAM) in Madison. Morgan County is the home of Raymond and Benny Andrews. They were African-American sons of a sharecropper family with a proud heritage of reading, creativity, and hard work. Raymond was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2009. A first edition signed copy of Raymond’s book, “Apalachee Red” (illustrated by Benny and the 1979 winner of the James Baldwin Prize), is on display at the Georgia Writers Museum. Benny’s rare paintings are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the High Museum in Atlanta, and the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center. But our lucky rare book discovery at MCAAM was a signed, uncorrected proof of Raymond’s book, “The Last Radio Baby,” illustrated by Benny.

The word “rare” has its origin in an old French word, rere, meaning sparse, which came from the Latin word rarus, meaning “thinly sown.” While rare books are sparse, they are not “thinly sown” in the Lake Country. An easy day trip on Highway 441 can take you from Milledgeville to Eatonton to Madison for an up-close look at literary works that have charmed readers through the ages. 

  • Chip R. Bell is a speaker and author who serves on the board of the Georgia Writers Museum in Eatonton. Melissa Swindell is the director of the museum which celebrates the life and work of world-renowned authors Alice Walker, Joel Chandler Harris, Flannery O’Connor, and serves as the home of the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. For information on upcoming events and workshops, visit georgiawritersmuseum.com

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