February 19, 2012

Rare book 'predicted' the Titanic

KALAMAZOO, Mich. — It's a familiar story: The largest ship ever built, billed as "unsinkable" by its British owners and the press, strikes an iceberg one April and goes down. Due to a lack of lifeboats, more than half the passengers perish in the North Atlantic.

click image to enlarge

The RMS Titanic in 1912.

Except The Titan is a fictional ship, and author Morgan Robertson first published his novella, "Futility," in 1898 — 14 years before the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 14, 1912.

The similarities between Robertson's plot and real life have given "Futility" an uncanny reputation among cognoscenti, with references popping up in everything from Walter Lord's 1955 nonfiction account of the Titanic sinking, "A Night to Remember," to Alan Moore's graphic novel "A League of Extraordinary Gentleman." The "Doctor Who" audio play "The Wreck of the Titan" is partly based on Robertson's novella.

"If you have any interest in the Titanic, it's a must-have," said Mark Dimunation, chief of the rare books and special collections department at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. "It's a great collectible book and there's this odd aspect to it makes it completely interesting."

But while you'll see a fictional copy in the video game "Titanic: Adventure Out of Time," very few copies of the 1898 edition still exist. (After the sinking of the Titanic, Robertson re-released "Futility" in 1912 with a new subtitle, "The Wreck of the Titan.")

The Library of Congress has a copy, as does the British Library and a few other private libraries. And so does Vaughn Baber, owner of Bicentennial Books, Kalamazoo's oldest used bookstore.

Baber, 83, said he found his copy 25 years ago in a used bookstore in St. Petersburg, Fla. Aware of its rarity, he snapped up the copy, which had a sticker price of $3.

"He didn't know what he had," Baber said of the owner of The Lighthouse bookstore. Baber and his wife, Arlene, have decided that the centennial of the Titanic's sinking in April makes it the right time to sell "Futility." While they have not yet settled on a venue, Baber believes an auction will generate the most interest.

"I challenge you to find another copy," Baber said inside his 35-year-old store on Westnedge Avenue, with books filling the floor-to-ceiling shelves and spilling onto the floor.

There are no other copies currently for sale in the United States, according to both Dimunation and Joyce Kosofsky, a rare books expert at the Brattle Book Shop in Boston, one of the oldest antiquarian bookshops in the U.S. Kosofsky said that the last available copy of "Futility" sold at auction in October 2010 for $2,200.

"That's a hammer price," said Kosofsky, which she says is more useful in determining value than an appraisal.

It's not clear whether that copy's condition was similar to Baber's, which is in very good shape for a 114-year-old book, with an inside water stain as the only visible blemish. The machine-press cover shows a picture of an ocean liner sinking beneath the waves with an iceberg behind it.

It's not first Shakespeare folio money, and one page of an original 1456 Gutenberg Bible would fetch more than 10 times more. But "that's a good price for a book," said Kosofsky.

Baber doesn't think so. "I won't sell this for less than $10,000," he said. "Particularly now with the centennial and the sinking of the Costa Concordia."

(Continued on page 2)

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