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.