Gather & Bind:
The Fundamentals of Book Collecting

Part Two: Why Collect Books?

The world of book lovers is broken into two opposing and irreconcilable groups. The first, and much the largest, is made up of those who see books as consumables. The second, less common, includes those who see books as beautiful objects.

We will discuss book consumers first, and then dismiss them, for they need not concern us further. For these people, a book is a medium that carries the author’s content—and that is all. When they read, they use the copy of the book in any way they please. When they are finished, they set it aside or discard it. These are the people who dog-ear corners, write shopping lists on endpapers, make marginal notes in ink, underline the text. For them, books are disposable items, intended to be used and then thrown away. The physical book is nothing more to them than a reader’s fast food wrapper.

I once read an article by one of these people, the daughter of a world-famous book publisher. She related with pride how both she and her father delighted in mutilating books as they read them. She went to the extreme of tearing out chapters when she was finished with them, so she could always find her place. The point of her piece was that physically destroying books added to her appreciation of them. This black widow’s approach to reading is extreme, but not all that uncommon.

For book consumers, any copy will do. There is no difference between a hardcover first edition or a used paperback reprint. After all, they argue, the words are the same. The Sun Also Rises in any edition has the same Hemingway text. Whenever we give a book-collecting seminar, we get the same question from the consumers in the audience: “What difference does it make, really?” And, for most of them, they already have their answer: “None.” And that ends the discussion.

If you are a book consumer, you need not read any further. You will never be a book collector. We have found from experience that if you do not understand the difference immediately, you never will.

Those of you who are left are the fortunate ones, and not nearly as uncommon as you might think. Although we are in the minority as regards the general population, there are still a great many of us. You might not think of yourselves as collectors, but you carry the virus. It may be latent, but be warned, it is chronic. There is no cure. The good news is that this disease, book collecting, gives pleasure and adds dimension to your life.

Those of us in the second group add another dimension, an aesthetic one, to our appreciation of books. We see books as physical objects of beauty and romance. While many of us do not necessarily define ourselves as book collectors, we love the look and feel of our books. Even if some of us do not understand first edition collecting, we have a shelf of treasured books, or even a library full of them.

We tend to take care of our books in the same way we care for the other valuable objects we own, like paintings or posters. We see our collections as extensions of our interests, perhaps as a record of our intellectual and artistic experiences. Something about having a book on the shelf gives pleasure; owning books enriches our lives.

Since collectors value books as beautiful objects, the books’ condition is important. A lovely copy is more appealing than one that has been used and abused. One of our favorite book collectors says that she can read any book from cover to cover without leaving any evidence of having done so. While there are not many of us who can do this, all collectors take care with their books. Beginners may write their names in their books, but they would never purposely deface them, any more than they would carve graffiti into a sculpture or draw a moustache on a face in a painting.

For a collector, a book’s edition is likely to be even more important than its condition. A Hemingway may always be a Hemingway, but a first edition is a world apart from a cheap paperback reading copy. There may have been a million copies of The Sun Also Rises printed over the years in all editions, but there were only 5,090 copies in the first edition. Only a few exist, fewer still in their original dust wrappers. There will never be any more copies of the first edition.

The underlying reason to collect books lies in the duality of the experience. Not only do collectors take pleasure from the intellectual content of their books, but they also enjoy the process of assembling their collections. At its most fundamental level, book collecting is an extension of the hunting-and-gathering instinct that has fired mankind’s progress from prehistory. The thrill involved in finding a beautiful first edition is palpable, even for those of us who have been involved in the chase for many years.

Only yesterday, we had a conversation with a veteran bookseller who came upon a gloriously fresh first edition copy in dust jacket of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Even though he had no economic interest in it, seeing and evaluating the book gave him pleasure. Finding a beautiful copy of a treasured book is a rewarding experience. Owning one gives continuing delight.

There are many secondary reasons to collect, including economic ones. Many first edition books appreciate in value over time. The laws of supply and demand dictate that. Since books are fragile, the number of available copies in the marketplace tends to diminish over the years. The chances are that a collector’s first edition library will become an increasingly valuable asset. There is a marketplace for books, and even though it has changed radically of the course of the last decade, book collecting is an expanding field that is likely to remain so.

Why collect books? Collect them because they are beautiful. Collect them because they are valuable. Most important of all, collect them because you love them.

If you are a collector, congratulations—and relax, you are not alone.

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