Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Book Collecting – Installment I

Book collecting can begin as an affinity and grow into an obsession. Something about books exerts such a strong pull on the collector, that the compulsively inclined had best take care when entering the hobby – it is head and shoulders above the field when it comes to documented cases of irrational fixation for the activity, otherwise known as Bibliomania.

What makes books so compelling? Collectable objects can be interesting for a variety of reasons including rarity, aesthetic attraction, and the stories behind those who created them. Books combine a long list of attractive attributes:

  • The subject matter, its quality, and the impact the contents have had on history and culture,
  • The edition or issue, and how it illustrates the evolution of the work and the author’s changing attitude toward it,
  • The author, their biography, and the place the work has in their development as an individual,
  • The printer, and the place the book holds in the history of publishing and the body of the printer’s work,
  • The illustrations, the story of the artist who created them, and the place of the compositions in art history,
  • The binding, its materials – be it leather, paper, or other medium, the binder herself, and the binder’s story and body of work,
  • The individual book, its provenance, previous readers, owners, annotators, and their historical significance or contribution to the book as object or to the subject matter it contains,
  • The collector, and the story of how he came to obtain the book, how it influenced his life, and the memories it evokes for him,

And on and on…

A single object that can combine so many stories in one hand-held portable package is a worthy collectable indeed. It is not only the rarest of examples that combines these qualities, but every book, to one degree or another. That such an item can be so readily available, to even the beginning collector, is unique.

The beginning collector that bears in mind all of the permutations of value and history that is open to him with each acquisition is off to an auspicious start. Most begin simply by keeping copies of books that they have enjoyed, and want to keep close should they want to revisit them in the future. Later, several books of similar theme or appeal fill the shelves of the reader, and the collector is born.

Recognizing that an accumulation is becoming a collection, what should the budding collector bear in mind? First, revisiting the ‘Constants in collecting’ can be helpful. These include: Collecting what you like, Taking Your Time, Doing Research, Shopping Virtually, Watching the Market, Buying the Seller, Buying the Best You Can Afford, and (again) Taking Your Time.

In addition, there are other important overarching ideas for book collectors:

What to Collect?

Some collectors assert that a collection is only important if it is thoughtfully designed in order to contribute to a field of scholarship on a particular subject. Such collections may focus on narrow fields, and trend towards being ‘compleatist’ in their makeup. While a valid approach, this attribute as being the sole arbiter of an ‘important’ collection is open to debate.

Other collectors acquire the most important ‘high spots’ in a variety of fields, so that individual books in the collection represent the most influential works in each category. Many who collect for investment purposes take this approach.

Another strategy is collecting books which are significant to the development of the collector himself, with individual books representing periods in the life of the collector.

There also exists a category of book collector whose approach is similar to that of the ‘Cabinet Collector’ of the 19th century. Cabinet collectors were so named because they would fill their display with oddities which piqued their interest, from a variety of cultures and locales.

Whatever the approach, a collection will only fulfill the collector if it speaks to them. The messages the collection whispers to the collector need only be known between the two – but a collection where this communication is absent, like any relationship devoid of communication, will ultimately grow stale and be left behind.


As with collecting watches, a variety of resources is readily available for the new book collector.


The two best books for the beginning collector are:

Among the Gently Mad – Strategies and Perspectives for the Book Hunter in the 21st Century by Nicholas Basbanes – Basbanes is the current incarnation of the Oracle at Delphi for book collectors. His other books, A Gentle Madness, Patience and Fortitude, A Splendor of Letters, and Every Book Its Reader illuminate the world of book collecting from top to bottom, and should be on every serious collector’s ‘To Read’ list. They detail the travails of collectors, auctioneers, bibliophiles, and bibliomanes as the buy, bid, 'borrow', and steal to build their collections. Among the Gently Mad is unique among them, however, because it outlines how to find and collect the books you want.

Book Collecting – A Modern Guide edited by Jean Peters – Now out of print, this book is a collection of essays, each focusing on one aspect of collecting, by a noted contributer in the respective fields. Finding this in the used book market should be the first fory into sourcing out-of-print books for the new collector.


How to find Book Collecting by Peters? Visiting the used book mega search engine Bookfinder should do it. Bookfinder searches new and OOP books from large retailers and small bookshops around the world, and is my favorite book collecting website. In a similar vein are ABE and Addall .

The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA) is a trade organization made up of professional independent booksellers. Buying the seller often means buying from a member of the ABAA. Their website also contains a wealth of information and links for collectors.


Book collecting magazines seem to come and go, but the current shining star is Fine Books & Collections Magazine. Contributors include Basbanes and a growing field of book cognoscenti.

From Here…

I hope this brief introduction will entice you to return for my future installments on book collecting. Book crazy myself, I am still in the process of evolving as a collector. Please feel free to comment, so we can grow together. And enjoy hunting down that object of your desire…unless it’s one I’m looking for too…



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't forget Alibris and Biblio too!

7:35 PM  

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