Old book collecting is a favorite hobby of mine. And it can be an expensive one- while I stay in the moderate range, the best, oldest examples- or the most overpriced- can run into the thousands at the very least. But the question I want to discuss here is why collect them? Is there any meaning beyond having a first edition of your favorite classic, or a lovely, but obscure old novel?
First, I’d like to point out that there are many reasons why people might make this a hobby of theirs. Some bibliophiles like to have the most pristine first-edition copy of a book that they can get their hands on, for example, or an unmarked copy of some particularly rare incunabula (read: a book printed in the early days of the printing press).
That’s not what I’m here for. When I go book hunting, I look for the most written-in, drawn-on, character-filled old thing I can find. If I’m lucky, the book even gets marked down for that. Why? Because when I buy an old book, I’m looking for a piece of history. Books are uniquely suited to people who want to own a piece of history on a limited budget. There are books from the 18th and 19th centuries available for well under a hundred dollars, and they say at least as much about their time periods as any artifact that you can buy in an antique shop.
For example, when I see the printed title of my 1689 copy of Amitiez, Amours, et Amourettes leaning down the page like a first-grader’s handwriting, I know it’s because the printing technology hadn’t been perfected yet like it had in my neat, pristine 19th century books.
When I opened up my 1920s copy of Christopher Marlowe’s works to find a student’s homework assignment in a beautiful cursive, with corrections by the teacher, I couldn’t have been happier. It’s a piece of what someone’s life was- when things were different, but in many ways, the same.
When someone inked their name in blotchy, faded-out ink in my copy of Webster’s American spelling guide, it shows what they thought was important- maybe the development of a uniquely American culture, or the ability to appear educated when writing letters and documents.
Some books have ads in them. Not any of my copies, but I’m always on the lookout for one, because it says what people wanted, what they needed, and describe some of the quirkier goods and inventions of the time.
Books are history. They don’t just describe it. So the next time you’re at your local used or rare bookstore, take a look around. They might contain more than texts and old paperbacks.