You don’t by any chance know the way through this labyrinth, do you?
Who, me? No, I’m just a worm. Say, come inside, and meet the missus.
Well, dearly beloved. Yesterday I was all righteous annoyance and impotent nerdy snark … which is obviously a great look for me.
Having thought about it though, it did occur to me that the real problem with that Treasure Detectives malarkey was not even the fact that they had no clue what they were on about … more the fact that to someone “normal” it would be really hard to tell.
If I were wandering the earth all besotted with books and suddenly had a windfall from a mysterious Romanian Great Uncle I’d never previously heard of, and I wanted to start collecting books … how would I go about it?
First … there are rules. They are for you, and like all of the best rules, they are rules that don’t just apply to book collecting:
1. Collect what you love
Later on you can branch out into other areas, but when you first start to pick things up and feel them and leaf through them, use your heart as much as your head. If you collect things you know you already have an attachment to, they will lead you to other things. Start with what you love. Always, always start with what you love. End with it too, if you can.
2. Collect the best copy you can find or afford
You see it, you want it … but it’s got those chipped bits and the inside is a bit browned. This is suggesting you should have a scout around a bit, if the book you want is particularly rare then learn the skill of asking for it to be put on hold or reserve while you have a think (although do me a favour, if you decide against it, at least tell me … I won’t mind). If all the copies are much the same or worse, or there are no other copies, fine…buy that one. It is better to have the book that you wanted in some form, than not have it and wish you did. The problem of finding it better elsewhere is part of the learning curve and can be reduced by building a relationship with a decent book-dealer…if you come to me wishing to upgrade for example (translated to “part exchange” in this context), there can often be grounds for a discussion. While you’re about it, walk up to that luminous, irresistible person and respectfully ask them for coffee or something, even if they say no (I’m looking at you; tall, gorgeous goth girl with eyes like saucers, 1995, Camden!), then at least you won’t spend your life wishing you had.
3. Never put anything on your bookshelf that is going to irritate you every time you look at it
Get rid of it, sell it, trade it in, donate it. Give it as a gift to a niece you’ve always found annoying. You made a minor mistake, this is part of all the learning. When you make such a mistake (provided it was your mistake) you either move it where it will no longer bother you, or you use it as a reminder not to make the same mistake again. (Franklin Library; that’s right, move along).
There are other rules, naturally: No means No. Neither reverse racism nor misandry are proper things. Consent and Coexistence are Everything. Wash is not dead. Winter is coming and make friends with book-dealers.
Doesn’t have to be me, but building a cordial relationship with book-dealers is the most useful tool. They know more about books than anyone, they occasionally make tea and have biscuits, they all have a bottle somewhere on their desks and occasionally you’ll meet one who is also a Time Lord. True story.
Where to start
The obvious answer is go to a bookshop … a second hand or antiquarian bookshop with lots of tiny diamond shaped windows, smelling of mildew, romance and crackling electric potential, with an old man in elbow patches behind the counter and a sleeping dog in front of the glowing fire.
They’re the best ones, the ones where Strange Old Bookseller ™ reaches under the counter and says he has just the thing you’re looking for and the next thing you know…Bang! It’s all Luckdragons, talking mice and everyone’s calling you Khaleesi. Goblin kings in resplendent battle mullets want to date you and there’s an airship needs fixing or we’ll never get the princess out of here.
Unfortunately, due to the high cost of business rates in most areas, Strange Old Bookseller ™ had to move and in his place there is a young man from Poznan who wants to know if you’d like an extra shot and a free skinny muffin with that. This is what happens when the orcs win. It’s like the Battle of Helm’s Deep was prosecuted from a distance with Saruman contesting that not once had a single Lord of The Mark requested planning permission for the Deeping Wall.
So, that’s the sexy bit out of the window. Which is a shame, because if there is anything sexier than a good book I have yet to find it.
Next step is a more up to date version of the same thing. You wake up one morning deciding you want to collect books seriously because of that one thing your girlfriend got you and you go looking for a second-hand bookshop. You find one, you walk in to ask some questions and you find that it’s a) very busy and there’s no dog, and b) it doesn’t do questions…it looks you up and down from somewhere between its fedora and its Mumford and Sons t-shirt and waves you into the basement to be terrorised by giant teetering stacks of book shaped … stuff.
So there’s that happening. That is a thing.
Then, there’s the internet. There’s actually way more than the internet … but it’s likely that’ll be where you end up next.
So here’s what you get when you Google Book Collecting for Beginners … give or take:
Abebooks.com, once hailed as the footstep of Doom for the book trade … now one of the few things keeping its head visibly above water. They have their issues, but there’s a wealth of information there. Some of it is meh, some of it is treasure … but the main advantage is that its all in one place right next to the books. You can search for a book you fancy, say “Dracula”, and then cross reference the description (however arcane or expensive it may be) with the glossary of terms and the tips for beginners. You’ll immediately pick up an idea of prices, publishers, edition, impression and issue terminology, book sizes and a bunch of other stuff to go away and think about after you’ve bookmarked the site. If you’re wary of contacting me because you think I look like the uncle you’re told to stay away from at family events, this is a good place to start.
This is trying, but it succeeded in confusing me, so … It’s heart is in the right place but there’s no actual information. Also, for the love of Whedon, stay away from Ebay until you feel confident you have an immune system built up…even wreckers must breathe, and that is where they do it.
Abebooks.com again, this time with a list of possible reference works (the featured John Carter book is the best, hands down for basic terminology, it’s like a Haines Manual for books, I have two editions right in front of me now). Some of them are incomprehensible at best…and some of them are just histories or memoirs which are interesting, but are kind of like reading someone else’s description of kissing; not as good as the real thing.
This starts off shaky (Sherlock Holmes first appeared in Sign of Four? Really?), but gets better, it has good information on identifying first editions and skates over stuff like priority and the importance of dust jackets (dust-wrappers, wrappers, jackets etc.). It also has a couple of sample descriptions for you to absorb, and some useful pictures.
A rundown of a Percy Muir book on book collecting. Unless you are the reincarnation of Ian Fleming, Mr. Muir, whilst a heavyweight of the trade, didn’t have you or the internet in mind when he wrote this.
An interesting collection of articles, many of them very commercially minded … but he manages to get across the infuriatingly nebulous nature of condition assessment and pricing, which can be a bit annoying to a new collector. I’ll look at one book and describe it as Near Fine, then I’ll look at another and decide it’s Very Good…and to someone who isn’t me there won’t be much of a discernable difference … I might price one at £100 and the other at £65 and it will look very much to you as if I’m making it up as I go along. I won’t be, but explaining how is pretty tricky on occasion.
Nope. Afraid not. Filler; there’s a lot of these out there.
Again, its heart is in the right place, and the condition information is probably useful … the pricing information is best disregarded in favour of doing your own legwork on abebooks or vialibri.net (which is kind of a hardcore raiding zone version of abebooks).
Now we’re talking! This is what I would have written if I had any conspicuous talent. It’s from Laura Massey of Peter Harrington Rare Books, if you look up “Nobody’s Fool” on Wikipedia there’s a picture of her. It definitely contains the “spirit” of how you should be preparing. The technical articles and glossaries and descriptions of pitfalls are all very well and good … but book collecting is a lifelong predisposition rather than a temporary hobby or a method of making a bit of quick cash. It can be those things too, but it is far more rewarding and inspiring when you step off the path and get out into the deep woods. Her 6th point on the list is vital. Look at books, touch the books, let them know you exist.
More to follow … but you knew that.
(The article was posted on Bibliodeviancy, it is presented here by permission of Adrian Harrington Rare Books.)