I didn’t intend to collect old books. My overwhelming revere for books has me saving them from markets and then I slot them into my bookshelves unread. It’s one particular aspect of my hoarding that my husband struggles with. Why have books if you’re not going to read them? More to the point – why buy them? I don’t even collect books properly. I don’t covet first editions, pristine binding or rare historical dialogue, and while sometimes these are happy side-discoveries they are never the reason for my purchase. I just think they’re beautiful.
The earliest book I have dates to around 1800 but the majority date between 1860 and 1920 largely because they are relatively common and affordable. Earlier works are harder to come by and if I do encounter one even in passable condition, I really can’t justify the price. Sometimes I have nineteenth century publications of older books, like my two copies of ‘Robinson Crusoe’. Two copies, bought at separate times because I forgotton I’d already had one (*laughs manically* who am I kidding? I would have bought it anyway). This probably adds to my husband’s frustration. My particular favourites also contain etchings or coloured pictures. Some are worth framing.
Then there’s the binding. Even though my books aren’t especially old the detailing can be extraordinary. It can be exquisitely embossed and coloured, covered in leather or fabric and sometimes with externally applied pictures (although these struggle to last the test of time). The book’s construction is as important to me as the content. We are so deep in technology in this digital age it’s easy to forget what it took to print and bind a book. Handwritten manuscripts would have been submitted to publishers, typesetting, block printing and compositing. One book I have is disintegrating but I love it because it shows this publisher reinforced the spine with recycled paper.
It is also interesting to look at cover design and book titles. I suspect cover design not only reflected the era and style of the time but also affected price. The more intricate and detailed covers would have sort higher values than the cheaper, plainer fabric bound books which I guess were the old fashioned version of a paperback. Without a blurb, potential readers would have been reliant on the titles for the gist of a story. Examples from my collection include, ‘The Lost Emerald’, ‘Terry and the Ancestors’, ‘The Welsh Singer’, ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’, and ‘A King’s Treachery’. Here are some obscure titles, ‘Manco’, ‘Noble but not the Noblest’, ‘That Merry Crew’, ‘The Crimson Whistler’ and ‘Filling up the Chinks’.
[To be continued…]