In preparing for an event taking place next month which will showcase our natural history texts, I had the opportunity to find out about a book I had no idea we held: The Conchologist’s First Book: or a system of testaceous malacology, arranged expressly for the use of schools…, by Edgar Allan Poe. I was a little surprised to learn that Poe had published far outside of the genres of detective stories and science fiction for which he is well-known! The Conchologist’s First Book has an intriguing story all its own, and sold more copies during Poe’s lifetime than any of his other publications.
The author of a book on shells had asked Poe to put together a less expensive version of his own book. As editor, translator, and arranger of the requested version, Poe made a number of contributions. He did not follow more traditional ways of arranging the illustrations of the shells, but rather decided to organize the shells from the simplest to the most complex. This was done before Charles Darwin had published his theories on evolution. The publisher of the original book would not allow the author’s name to be on the book in fear that it would reduce the sales of the original, and therefore Poe’s name was used for the first three editions. Curious to learn more? The Museum of Edgar Allan Poe has an interesting description here. This was not the only book which provides us with Poe’s scientific thinking. For his final book, Eureka, Poe writes a prose poem containing his ideas on the nature and origin of the universe.
Interested in seeing our first edition copy of The Conchologist’s First Book (QL405.P752c)? Please feel free to visit us on the fourth floor of Parks Library (M-F, 10-4). We also have a few other books related to Poe (including an 1885 copy of A Defense of Edgar Allan Poe. Life, Character and Dying Declarations of the Poet. An Official Account of His Death), and a variety of books on conchology and shells. This includes Thomas Brown’s The Conchologist’s Text Book (QL403 .B81c), which the original author of Poe’s textbook had based his book.