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BEVIS HILLIER

Shelf Life : For Producer Jerry Bick, Book Collecting Isn't a Search for First Editions in Gold-Tooled Leather Bindings

July 20, 1986|BEVIS HILLIER

The one-time popular image of a movie mogul was someone who chewed the ends off cigars, bellowed at people through megaphones and was awash with Goldwynesque malapropisms. His modern counterpart is more likely to be an adventurous yuppie, a failed writer, a "turned agent" or a bored business executive in search of excitement. And his interests outside the movie industry are usually much more couth. Jerry Bick, who produced "Swing Shift," starring Goldie Hawn, and (as executive producer) "Farewell My Lovely" and "Against All Odds," collects books. He is not a supercilious culture-vulture. The shelves of his Westwood apartment are not groaning with gold-tooled leather bindings or first editions of precious 1890s poets. He does not go in for incunabula, first folios or variant printings of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnets.

"The fun for me," Bick says, "is simply finding an attractive copy of a book that I like." For a long time, he did not think of himself as a book collector. "I didn't haunt book shops, and I didn't know that having the original dust jacket on a book was desirable. I suddenly just found that I didn't want to postpone getting books that I wanted, and I started to buy them. I would think: 'This book may not come my way again.' And after a time I discovered that I did have a halfway-decent library."

Bick is particularly fond of old travel books--Baedeker, Michelin and Terry guides, for example. "I don't read them, as I guess some people do, but I look through them. I like their format, I like the way they look, I like their maps--which are actually very difficult to make use of, the details are so small. A Terry's guide will give you information about the history of a particular area that is so detailed and so complete." His Terry's "Mexico" (the 1944 edition) has a 249-page introduction.

"I like the fact that the book tells you that if you want to go from Laredo, Tex., via Monterrey and Saltillo to San Luis Potosi, Queretaro and Mexico City, you will go via the famous Iron Mountain, Bald Knob, Little Rock . . . and it tells you how many miles it is--450 miles shorter than any other route. There is a tremendous amount of oddball information in these guides, and that's what I think draws people to them; in addition to which, they seem to be written by people who really know their subject and are not just getting information from somewhere else, as is often the case."

Bick's collection is on a small scale. He likes paperbacks of classic novels, also the Oxford University Press World Classics series because the books are compact and the paper quality is good. "With those OUP books, you can carry a 600-page novel with you in your jacket pocket." If Bick is interested in a book, he wants to read it in an edition that is satisfying to look at as well as to read. Bad paper or bad binding severely detract from his pleasure in reading.

His favorite authors include the Victorian English literary critic and wine expert George Saintsbury and the 20th-Century English critic Cyril Connolly. "I haven't read every page of Connolly," he says, "but there's not a page of his that I have read that I've not enjoyed. His neuroses are attractive, his style is appealing, he doesn't go on and on; when he travels, you feel the pleasure of it in the same kind of way that you think he must have. I can identify with him."

Bick has Connolly's "The Unquiet Grave" with its fine jacket designed by John Piper. The book was first published by Horizon in 1944; Bick has the revised edition, published by Hamish Hamilton in September, 1945. But he has the first edition of Connolly's "Previous Convictions" (Constable, London 1963).

Perhaps surprisingly for a man who is decisive and sometimes impatient, he is a Proustian. The volumes of " A La Recherche du temps perdu , " both in the original French and in C. K. Scott Moncrieff's English translation, have a shelf to themselves. "I think you have to be in a trapped situation to read Proust," Bick suggests, "or you need an awful lot of dedication." He read Proust for the first time on a voyage to England aboard the Queen Mary. "I was able to get into the novel to such an extent that I couldn't get out of it without actually finishing the book."

Bick also enjoys the novels of Evelyn Waugh. He knows all the stories about Waugh's personal rudeness and snobbery but makes allowances for him. "I think he was probably a very sensitive man who was acting to defend himself in advance. Now that can't be an excuse to hurt someone else--which I'm sure he did on many occasions--but I have always had the feeling that he wouldn't hurt someone who was defenseless. But we should never meet the people we most admire. If I had met him, he would probably have impaled me. After all, he did it to Edmund Wilson."

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