Skip to main content
Article |
Article
| Collecting

New publication by Chatwin Books (US) looks at today's book collecting

Indeed, “Books don’t just furnish a room,” Michael Dirda writes in Browsings. “. . . Digital texts are all well and good, but books on shelves are a presence in your life. As such, they become a part of your day-to-day existence, reminding you, chastising you, calling to you. Plus, book collecting is, hands down, the greatest pastime in the world.”
Published on 14 May 2019
Book Collecting Now Cover

Seattle-based publishing house Chatwin Books who specialises in literary fiction, poetry and photography books but also works on letterpress printing and fine art, has just published an insight into modern book collecting, "Book Collecting Now - The Value of Print in the Digital Age" by Matthew Budman. 

In its introduction, the author writes: 

"First, let me tell you about the person for whom I didn’t write this book. She’s someone who believes that the only proper way to collect books is buying to impress or invest. And no wonder why she believes that. For decades—centuries!—the prevailing attitude has been that bibliophilia is a hobby reserved for wealthy men looking to fill bookcases with valuable but impersonal acquisitions guaranteed to increase in literary prestige and monetary value. You know the titles I’m talking about: the classics everyone has heard of and therefore everyone wants, making them expensive. I mean, of course early editions of Shakespeare and Milton are in high demand; of course we all ooh and aah over first editions of The Great Gatsby and The Maltese Falcon. For many bibliophiles, the quest to acquire top-quality copies of such volumes, whatever the price, is pretty much the definition of collecting.

But collecting books shouldn’t be for only that narrow group. And things are changing fast, bringing new thinking about the ways people collect as well as the kinds of people who collect in the first place. Defying stereotypes and predictions, young people are increasingly enthusiastic about print, both as readers and collectors. And after years—centuries!—of being treated as second- class collectors, women are finally full-fledged equals in bookshops, at antiquarian fairs, and everywhere else.

...

So yes, books are awesome, and this is a great time to start collecting.  'Not only is book collecting alive and well in the here and now,' writes novelist and editor Katherine Mead-Brewer, 'it may even be thriving and growing more competitive.' It’s not about only rising enthusiasm for new hardcover releases. In a larger sense, we’re seeing the beginnings of a backlash against the sterility of lives lived onscreen, in which every sedan is an identical silver egg and Ikea makes all our wall art as well as all our furniture. 'Analog gives us the job of creating and possessing real, tangible things in realms where physical objects and experiences are fading,' David Sax writes in 2016’s The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter

 

Excerpt from Chapter 1: What You Need to Know to Start

Building a book collection, item by item, should be fun, of course—otherwise, why bother? But it can and should be much more. Collecting can be an academic pursuit, a reconnection with a treasured family past, or just plain whimsy; fundamentally, constructing a personal library can be a playground for the mind or aim for nothing less than the assembly and creation of new knowledge. Art consultant Alan Bamberger counsels collectors to be “true to your tastes . . . regardless of what you think you’re supposed to like or what seems to be the current rage.”

The most inspiring book collections are not those of billionaires filling shelves with an assortment of museum-quality works. Rather, they are the compilations of collectors who, through passion and effort, have built specialized libraries that became the finest of their kind—collections that are more than the sum of their parts. Whether it’s a collection of miniature books published for children, or a library of mystery novels that take place aboard trains, or a complete series of a small press’s fifty-year run of poetry volumes, or a display of rare 1940s guidebooks published for African-American travelers, collections don’t have to fill a house to be meaningful and even important. The big step, says Women Bibliophiles Project creator Emiko Hastings, is  moving beyond simple accumulation: “A person might accumulate a lot of books—she might inherit them or just pick them up over time—but to call it a collection that’s meaningful as a whole requires intention.”

Indeed, “Books don’t just furnish a room,” Michael Dirda writes in Browsings. “A personal library is a reflection of who you are and who you want to be, of what you value and what you desire, of how much you know and how much more you’d like to know. . . . Digital texts are all well and good, but books on shelves are a presence in your life. As such, they become a part of your day-to-day existence, reminding you, chastising you, calling to you. Plus, book collecting is, hands down, the greatest pastime in the world.”

Collectors don’t, of course, create books—what they do is compile, redistribute, and disseminate them. Building a library is itself an act of creation, and the situation today—more books on more subjects with lower prices— provides unprecedented opportunity to create something truly special. “It’s a great time to collect, because of the Internet,” says Ken Eastman of Moe’s Books in Berkeley. “Because almost everything is now common, prices have plummeted. And it’s a great time if you have obscure interests or are amassing a library. Before the Internet, trying to find a particular rare book could have been a lifelong hunt; you might never have found it. Now you just type it into a database, and there it is. It’s a golden age for buyers.”

“What Do You Collect?”

You know how aspiring fiction writers often are told to write what you know? Well, the single most important thing to keep in mind when thinking about the idea of collecting is to collect what you like. The first place to look is your shelves—what’s on them? What do you already own? What books—whether battered paperbacks or leatherbound treasures—do you gaze upon most fondly?

You may have begun a collection and don’t even know it. But even though it’s important to focus, that doesn’t have to happen—it shouldn’t happen—immediately. Spend some time wandering bookstore aisles and libraries and book fairs. Browse Fine Books & Collections’ profiles of “Bright Young Collectors” to learn how they got inspired and began building their personal libraries. I highly recommend leafing through a book or two that surveys the history of reading and book-buying: John Tebbel’s one-volume Between Covers: The Rise and Transformation of Book Publishing in America, perhaps, or Clive Bloom’s U.K.-focused Bestsellers: Popular Fiction Since 1900, or James D. Hart’s wonderful The Popular Book: A History of America’s Literary Taste  (1950), which not only puts any number of still-classic works in historical context but introduces dozens of fascinating trends and authors of whom you might never have heard.

There are plenty of volumes and blogs and websites looking at particular genres of books: cookbooks or 1940s pulp paperbacks or works by notably awful writers. As you become more familiar with different works and categories and book people, you’ll find a collecting focus; it’ll appear organically. You may even find yourself part of a community interested in the same general topic area; you’ll run into the same people browsing the same tables at book sales, bidding on the same eBay items, talking excitedly about an upcoming auction. And in the process of researching, sifting, and beginning your collection, you’ll start to become an authority on your particular subject, which is a big part of what’s fun about this hobby: As you go, you’ll learn more and more about how these books fit into the culture at large, about tastes of the time, about why particular titles had disproportionately great impact—or no impact at all. When a friend sees your shelves and asks about their contents, you’ll be able to explain—and be excited about it.

So: Start with what you like. As Collecting Children’s Books co-authors Noah Fleisher and Lauren Zittle write, “If you don’t love it, don’t put money into it—that is the bottom line.”

Visit a local used bookstore and browse the racks; ruminate on subjects that have always caught your attention; recall favorite adventure sagas or guilty pleasure novels; explore intriguing oddities; think of your favorite vacation spots. John T. Winterich writes in A Primer of Book Collecting : “Whatever a man’s hobby, he can parallel it—or his trade, his profession, even his pet aversion—in book collecting.”

Love your job? Seek out books that extol the profession or explore its history. Hate your job? Try books that attack it. (And stash them in the closet when you invite your boss over.)

“One of the truly wonderful things about collecting books is that the subject is limitless,” said International League of Antiquarian Booksellers then-president Tom Congalton in a 2012 interview. “If you are interested in literally anything, there are books about it, and as you investigate that subject you are likely to find a surprisingly rich depth of material, including related material—autographs, manuscripts, paper ephemera, sound recordings, whatever. The scope of book collecting is practically infinite. So I’d say that book collecting is limited only by one’s own imagination.”

 

This excerpt was published with the permission of its publishers, Chatwin Books. The book can be purchased at any US bookstore or by contacting the publishers here: 

CHATWIN BOOKS - "Book Collecting Now - The Value of Print in the Digital Age" by Matthew Budman

 

  • share