Collecting Rare Books

Collecting is a passion, a calling, an art. All collectors feel a strong connection with the object of their pursuit, but book collectors seem to have an especially emotional attachment. Is it that books are not just things? Is a collectible book more than just a wonderfully tactile object of age and craftsmanship, something lovely to feel and smell and to see and read… and maybe something more?

Melville First Editions of “Typee” and “Omoo”.

Perhaps it is a matter of imagination. A book is not just a cover and pages: it comprises more than the prose and verse contained, the ideas expressed, the capture of the time and place when written. Perhaps the collector of rare and beautiful books is also collecting an innate part of themselves. Perhaps the collector is chasing their own dreams.

What drives a book collector? What does one look for when choosing a volume and how does one go about building a collection? Well first and foremost all serious collectors are quick to realize that there is a big difference between collecting and accumulating. Libraries are encompassing, while collections are specialized. Collectors tend to focus their attention on a particular type of book.

Choice collection of rare and first edition Nantucket books.

There are nearly as many strategies for collecting as there are collectors. Some people pursue all titles by a particular author. Some may search for different editions of one particular title (for example I have an embarrassing number of early editions of Treasure Island). People may limit their attention to only a specific genre, subject, time period or locale. Some are exclusively interested in a specific publisher or illustrator. Or a specific binding. Or social-historical significance. Or Commercial success. Or obscurity. Or first novels by later acclaimed writers. Or the sole novels by authors who never wrote another (anyone for a Mockingbird?). The possibilities are seemingly endless. The most bizarre collection I ever heard of comprised first editions of first novels written by authors who later took their own lives.

Whatever their pursuit all collectors of course prize first editions, and most also want first printings… but there are exceptions. A second, or even later, edition is usually acceptable in the case of a very early or particularly rare and valuable book. Sometimes a later edition may even be preferable over a first.

Early leather-bound edition of “The Complete Angler ” by Izaak Walton

All books are not printed equally; some publishers do a particularly fine job. A case in point is The Complete Angler written by Izaak Walton and first published in 1653. Most fans of this seminal work search for the 1824 publication by Major, even though it is the twenty-something edition. The tooled and gilded leather binding, excellent illustrations and fine printing have made it a lasting favorite.

Condition is extremely important. We all want our treasures in as mint condition as possible, or as is practical. An early field book for example, or a navigational pilot, is expected to show wear.

19th Century Handwritten Sailor’s Logbook.

Hand-written ship’s logbooks are often missing pages yet remain very desirable. There are books which collectors are thrilled to have even just one page. At the other extreme lie modern first editions, where everything must be present and perfect, and the dust jacket may be more valuable than the book itself.

An author’s signature of course adds excitement, class, mystique and often value. An inscription however is not always viewed favorably by posterity. A witty turn-of-phrase or a sincerely personal sentiment by the author can be interesting, while a generic mass-book-signing inscription (For Oscar with regard…”) may actually demean the prize and lesson its value. Price clippings hurt to some extent. An owner’s bookplate or discrete signature is usually tolerated, but a library’s heavy markings are a bummer indeed.

The invasion of the internet has affected literature in many ways. We no longer search for and purchase books in the same way as just a decade ago, and in many cases no longer even read them in the same way of old. The internet has impacted the rare book trade tremendously, as in fact it has the antiques trade as a whole. But probably not in the way you think.

The internet has given the individual access to much more information, often allowing them to bypass the local dealer. Having the world at your fingertips should boost supply out of sight, dropping values through the floor. But the same dynamic now gives dealers access to collectors around the world which fiercely increases demand, which should drive prices through the roof. Which is it?

Corrected by the internet, items that in truth were quite common and readily available, that were not really valuable in the first place, have justifiably come down in price. Conversely, items that are truly rare, special, desirable and in fine condition have risen greatly in price. Brick and mortar book shops may be at a disadvantage in terms of mass market, but hold a decided advantage in terms of the collector being able to judge that supremely important condition. There are actually a substantially greater number of rare book dealers now than just ten years ago, and the professional associations report healthy sales indeed.

Many people love to read and appreciate books for what they contain and the knowledge or enjoyment they impart. But some people have a further aesthetic appreciation of everything about the book itself: not just its

First Edition of “Miriam Coffin, or, The Whale Fishermen” in Two Volumes. The first novel about Nantucket.

contents but also its romance, its physical craftsmanship and beauty, its place in the universe of literature. Awareness of appreciating value (or not) certainly plays a role, in some cases a commanding one, but most book collectors are driven more by their passion for the art and their own imagination. Their collection is an extension of their curiosity and intellectual experiences. A collector’s life is enriched not just by reading the book, but also by enjoying it’s presence on their shelf.