Rare Books: Collecting in the Digital Age


I find old and rare books fascinating. There’s something about the duality of them — the story of the object that goes with the story between the covers — that piques my interest. I cannot claim to know much about collecting rare books as a serious hobby, however. The practical side of my personality insists I’m better off spending my money on many new books rather than just a few precious old ones, so I try not to delve too deeply into the subject for fear of temptation getting the better of me. But this weekend I ducked into the California International Antiquarian Book Fair, which takes place each year in Pasadena, a stone’s throw from where I live, because an entire exhibit hall filled with books is just too much for me to resist. It was like someone delivered a book museum to my doorstep.

Wandering the aisles, I came across too many treasures to describe them all, but a few stuck out in particular: A first edition of Charlotte’s Web going for $25,000, inscribed by author E.B. White to actress Elizabeth Taylor; a beautiful four-volume, leather bound edition of Middlemarch; several lovely early editions of works by Jane Austen; a complete set of first edition Winnie-the-Pooh books.

Most of the truly valuable books were in glass cases, but plenty of fairly impressive volumes were out in the open where anyone could thumb through them. Booksellers had come from all over the country, as well as England, France, Germany, etc. In addition to the books, there were comics, beautiful maps, framed illustrations and cover art, letters, autographs, and the odd novelty item on display. This year’s theme was Alice in Wonderland, so many of the displays included editions of Alice’s Adventures and Through the Looking Glass, and the lobby boasted a wonderful Alice collection, including several of the printing plates for the original Tenniel illustrations.

With so much emphasis on the shift in publishing from paper to digital, it’s impossible not to wonder what these sorts of events might be like in the future. New book sales seem to be settling, with paper editions still holding onto a fair share of the market, but there’s no denying that print runs have shrunk in recent years. Smaller print runs, in part, lead to more valuable books in the future, as fewer copies survive to be collected. Could be that rare book collectors will one day applaud this upheaval in the publishing industry for its boost to the quality of their ongoing treasure hunts.

Readers seem to be divided between those who love the content of the book, and those who love both the content and the book as an object of art. Which side of the fence do you land on? Do you own any rare or special books? I’m curious to hear everyone’s take.

10 thoughts on “Rare Books: Collecting in the Digital Age

  1. Old, even ancient or unusual maps, as well as medieval manuscripts, are my other passions (genealogy and romance writing are the others). I’m not a book collector, but I certainly appreciate and enjoy first editions, particularly if signed. And most particularly, if illustrated! Very special.
    At the moment, my book collection contains a dozen or more ‘old’ books, and shelves-full of fiction and non-fiction. Plus the TBRs on my SmartPhone to read while waiting anywhere…

    1. They had some beautiful illuminated manuscripts at the fair this weekend. Such amazing work.

  2. Oh, Nephele, I love reading this. It solidifies in my mind that we are a good match and I can’t wait to send you my next MS, which is all about the importance of old books as objects and as channels of communication. I am a printed book fiend and I love finding beautiful old editions of great books. I don’t own anything truly valuable, but were I a moneyed old eccentric, you can bet that’s what I’d be spending my money on. 🙂 We’re blessed with a couple fabulous little used book stores in Lansing, and some day when I have few hundred dollars to burn I plan a pilgrimage to John King Books in Detroit. Check it out: http://www.kingbooksdetroit.com/

    1. LOL! Oh yes, I’ve got plans for when I finally win the lottery. 😉 Notice I brought home a small, carefully chosen collection of business cards from the fair.

      1. We have our Antiquarian Book Fair in April and October. I’m always particularly intrigued by miniature books and well-illustrated children’s books from the late 1800s and early 1900s. They are SO charming.

        1. Those miniature books are amazing works of art. I saw some with really beautiful embroidered covers.

  3. Hi Nephele, I have been reading your interesting blog for a while now. I just had to respond to this post. While I do find the kindle to be terribly convenient for holidays and long journeys, there is nothing like the smell and texture of an old book. I have been collecting since I was a teenager, nothing terribly expensive, some first editions and some with beautiful illustrations. I especially love finding editions with dedications and dates. The Time Travellers Bookshop in Skibbereen, Co Cork, Is the place to go with a devil-May-care attitude to credit debt in Ireland! Best wishes, Shauna

    1. Thanks for sharing, Shauna. I love that you enjoy books with dedications. It’s such a personal touch in a book, and I always enjoy imagining he lives of the people behind the dedication. And thanks for the bookstore rec! I can see I’m going to have my bookish travels all laid out for me thanks to this post. 🙂

  4. For my husband’s birthday one year I bought him a first edition hardcover of Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” *signed by the author*. I found it through the amazing database over at ABE Books, which pointed me to a rare bookseller in Texas; I lived in New York at the time. This wonderful bookstore owner spoke with me on the phone once, and we trusted each other enough that he shipped it out while I mailed a check (this was pre-PayPal). My husband absolutely loved it, and it holds a place of honor in our “special collection” bookcase at home. (We have several bookcases, out of necessity.)

    Once, at the Strand in the East Village, I found a very old copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Tales of Mystery & Imagination” for just $10. I could not believe it! It was hard-bound, with a case, and from the 1940s – for ten bucks! Sometimes you just have to keep your eyes open and these little treasures will find you. 🙂

    1. What fun finds! And yes, book people are just some of the nicest around. I had so many lovely chats with folks at the book fair, despite it being pretty obvious that I wasn’t really in the market to make a purchase.

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