Copyright © 2003 by Michael Segers, All rights reserved
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"You books must know your places."
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
|After a recent rave about collecting open salts, I heard from a friend who said I should write about something I know, collecting books. The truth is, although I have bought, sold, enjoyed, and lost many more books than salts, I have never collected books. I've accumulated them, used them, treasured them, and lately, gotten rid of them. But, a book for me has always been as the Internet is for me now - a tool, something I use for a specific purpose, not a thing that I acquire simply to own it.|
Over the years, however, I have absorbed a little knowledge about collecting books, and I've often been asked about the value of old books. So, what I'm offering here is no neatly organized guide to appraising old books but instead general guidelines to help someone start a collection of books or try to determine the value (even if not necessarily the price) of a book.
It's common knowledge the the three most important variables in determining the price of antiques have nothing to do with age. They are, instead, condition, condition, and condition. And with books, I'd say the fourth variable is condition. Books are so much more fragile than many collectibles, even the sometimes delicate salts that I wrote about earlier. Basically, a book that is a century old is nothing but a pile of hundred year old paper, and that may not be of any value, even in the outhouse... only in the fireplace. I have seen racks of hundred year old books for a dollar a piece and could not find a single one that I felt was worth a dollar.
Granted that the condition is good, then, what considerations affect the price of a book? Price is simply a reflection of its desirability, so the price is determined by the significance, the rarity, and the attractiveness of the book. Now, we get to what I call the Bible problem. During my years of teaching, I often had students tell me that they would like to know about the price of a cherished old book at home. The old book was, always, a family Bible.
Now, notice what I just wrote: the old book was, always, a family Bible. So, there is not much rarity associated with copies of perhaps the only book that many households had. If, however, I suggested as gently as I could, um, that, perhaps, the book would, ah, not have, much.... value, then I would always hear the retort, "Are you saying the Bible doesn't have much value?"
Nowadays, I can do something that back in the dark old pre-Internet days I could not do. I can suggest that you download the text of the Bible. Now, you have all the value that the text itself can have, there on your hard drive. The question of price then becomes, what does your old volume add to the value of that text?
If it is the Bible in which one of the leading families of the state recorded their births and deaths for a century or the Bible on which a president of the United States swore his oath of office, then, of course, the book as an object has a special value. If the Bible is the first edition that included commentaries dealing with the theory of evolution or the roles of women, then the edition has a special significance. If your book is just one of thousands and thousands of Bibles printed in the United States during the nineteenth century, then it is just one of thousands and thousands....
Ironically, an old Sears catalog would likely draw a higher price than a Bible from the same year. A Sears catalog would be a much rarer book, because it would not be as likely to be saved. (Those of us with a country background can tell you what happened to most Sears catalogs, back in the days when recycling came naturally.)
Old Sears catalogs can be quite attractive; some years ago, I owned a copy of a modern reprinting of one of the first editions of that venerable masterwork of United States capitalism. It was a fascinating window into the life of an earlier time, and I could imagine that it could be very useful to someone writing a novel set in that time. Many old books that we come across just are not that attractive.
Consider old textbooks. They are not likely to be rare, since there would likely be multiple copies of them in a community. Generally, they don't look very good, and they don't have much interest. Sometimes, some old textbooks may have some pleasant illustrations or some quaintly charming misinformation. But, basically, once information reaches a textbook, it has lost any significance or newness.
The same is true with collected editions. Most likely, the first edition of a single novel by Charles Dickens would be worth more than even an early collected edition of his work. The significance of a first edition of a Dickens novel was lost by the time a collected edition of his works came out. But, a collected edition of the works of Charles Dickens would have a higher price than an edition of the collected works of Aphra Behn. Now, if you ask "Aphra who?" then you understand why the works of the author of Great Expectations would be more interesting to customers than works by the author of Oroonoko. Then, again, with the special interest in women writers, Ms. Behn's works may have some worth today that they did not have perhaps thirty years ago. It might be added that book club editions, like collected editions, occur after the significant appearances of the book.
A set of books is usually regarded as a single object, so if you only have fifteen of eighteen volumes, the value will drop as much as the value of a piece of Lalique glass would, if you had only five-sixths of it. So, a real Internet treasure for book-lovers, book-collectors, and book-accumulators is the "Setmaker" on a fantastic Books and Collecting Site. "Setmaker" is called a "Bureau of Missing Volumes," but I like to think of it as a sort of matchmaking service for lonely people and books. You can post what you have or what you need for free.
But, don't stop there. This Books and Collecting Site is as crowded, almost messy, as a great old book store, packed to its cyber-ceiling. Here are just some of the topics listed: book search, collector's resources, foreign books, libraries, magazines, pseudonyms, reference books, associations, author signatures, bibliographies, bookbinding, book fairs/sales, book sites, book software, Britannica, children's books, cookbooks, dog books, dust jackets, glossaries, mail-lists, Modern Library (which got once caught up with mullet and orange juice in a rave of mine) , new books, news groups, paperbacks, seminars, uncorrected proofs, used books, and valuation.
About Book Collecting offers all kinds of great resources for book collectors: mail-lists, associations, book terms, glossaries, binding, dust jackets, collectors' resources and references, bibliographies, and more, more, more. As I would expect from a site for collectors of books, the group that hangs out on its forum is especially amiable.
While About Book Collecting is a sort of online book club, this Collecting Books FAQ takes a more just-the-facts-ma'am approach to books with very thorough answers to questions on the following topics: sources and guides to book collecting, identifying books, the care and feeding (trust me!) of your collection, book terminology, value judgments, miscellaneous odds and endpapers, and buying and selling books. With a page of over a thousand links, you may have more information than you can ever absorb, but we are not through yet.
Alibris.com, " Books You Thought You'd Never Find," is not only a great place to buy collectible books but also a great place to learn about them. Where else could you find an article on collecting books in the area of space exploration or a guide to book collecting in the 21st century?
Abebooks.com, the world's largest online marketplace for used, rare, and out-of-print books, is an only-on-the-Internet kind of operation, providing one site where book buyers and book sellers from around the world can find each other. A lover of John Steinbeck's works who is snowbound in New Hampshire may track down the first edition he needs to complete his collection in an antiquarian bookstore in central Florida... or in the outback of Australia, for that matter.
Sometimes, in these raves of mine, I lose perspective, and so, I turn again to the words of the widely rovin' and wildly ravin' Herman Melville, with whose words I began this article. Surely, of all authors, he is the one who put into words and books whatever is truly wondrous and fearful in man. And yet, to give this great writer, whose heart may have been full of noble thoughts but whose feet were rarely dry, the last word: "whatever is truly wondrous and fearful in man, never yet was put into words or books." (Moby Dick)
I referred to the last word, but I can be as long-winded as Melville himself. A strange new turn in enjoying books is the e-book, the electronic text of a book. All the book titles that I refer you to in this article have a hyperlink to their texts at Blackmask.com, an archive of some ten thousand titles -- all digital, all free, all the time! In a previous rave, I told you about about my roves through other online libraries, but once you find Blackmask. you almost don't need any other online library.
|This photo represents the extremes of my experience with books these days. Surrounded by very special books--autographed editions by friends and teachers--are three CD's on which I can access over seven thousand texts from Blackmask. (The new edition from Blackmask has ten thousand texts on four CD's.) Also, just next to Angel in the Forest by Marguerite Young is my Archos Jukebox Multimedia 20, a little electronic toy smaller than the books but capable of holding twenty gigabytes of data, and that's a whole lot of books. We can, if we wish, transcend the thing-ness of the book-thing just for the sake of the text itself.|
And that is a good thing. That is a bad thing. But, there is something comforting, reassuring about the physical presence of books, at least for me. Previously, in the rave about collecting open salts, the R&R parrot, Dory, got involved. This time, not just in the sense of fair play, I've invited the R&R cats, Lady (above) and Max (left), to visit. Not only have they grown up with my books, but also, cats and books for me are a natural combination. Parrots and books, I'm sad to say, don't always make such a good match.
Although I'm now quite comfortable reading e-books (and even creating them), especially since I can adjust the size of the type to make it more readable by my old eyes, sometimes, I have an eerie sense that something is missing, as if I were just watching a videotape of my cats.
Oh, well, the value of a good book, for someone who has lived with it for many years, may have nothing to do with its price. (The same could be said for cats rescued from the pound.) So, let's try a last word again: keep your feet and books dry, your heart and books full of noble thoughts. And if you are lucky enough to have a cat that shares your taste in books, you are very lucky indeed.
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