Thursday, November 12, 2009

How To Read An Expensive Rare Book (A Cautionary Tale)

One word: Carefully.

No, two words: Very carefully.

Upon receipt of the three-hundred year old rare book you just paid $22,000 for (but haven't yet sent the check), inspect it with delicacy. Examine the hinges (inner joints) by gently - and only partially - opening the upper board and then the lower board. Please do not wildly open the book as if it’s the Yellow Pages and you’re frantic to find a plumber.

Hinges and joints firm, as advertised by the dealer, with only three small distressed spots along the upper hinge? Excellent!

Now, what better way to celebrate your new acquisition than by sitting down in your sumptuous club chair by the fireplace, pouring yourself a glass of sherry, and reading it?

Not if you’re going to open the book as if you were butterflying a shrimp, strain the joints and hinges, and have the upper hinge crack because even though you’ve been collecting for years and have built a valuable collection, the smart pills have yet to kick in.

Don’t compound the situation by doing “a little home repair” with Elmer’s glue because you’re too embarrassed to tell the dealer what happened. Later, after ruing your amateur-hour repair, please don’t suggest to the seller that they should have known, after three-hundred years and who knows how many times the book had been opened, that the jig was up for this baby, the eleventh hour had come and gone, the clock struck twelve just at the moment you opened the book, and the Fates had conspired against you but that the dealer should have interceded on your behalf.

By a cheap copy for reading purposes; a paperback is just fine.

As long as it’s not a rare paperback.

A sixty year old paperback in mint condition is an astonishment; these books were never meant to last, much less be collected. If you discover a mint copy of a desired rare title and buy it, do this: Nothing. Sharp edges, firm corners, no creasing of any kind, tight wrappers, and no, repeat no, evidence of a crease line along the spine indicating that the book had been opened - this is what paperback collectors crave. If you break one of these laws the $200 mint-condition paperback nosedives in value.

There is only way to read a scarce paperback and that is by the peek-a-boo method: Open the paperback no more than one half inch. Trying to read text close to the inner margins is insanely difficult by this method, so just fuggetaboutit and buy a $10 “reading copy,” another name for “scholar’s copy.” Both euphemisms define a book that is a mess, in such miserable condition that it could only appeal to a starving scholar who needs it for research purposes and couldn’t care less about collectable value.

In fairness to our hapless collector, is there a rare book dealer who hasn’t, at least once, injured one of their books? No, it comes with the territory; it happens to the best of us. It usually occurs early in one’s career, with lack of experience.

But experience is not an insurance policy. Not too long ago, I was cataloging a book and opened the rear board to check out a bookseller’s ticket on the rear paste-down endpaper. The hinge was iffy so I was super-careful. Fool that I was, I exhaled just as I parted the rear board from the text block, oh, say, and inch and a half, and the entire hinge gave up the ghost, completely separated the binding from the gatherings, and I was left with a leather-bound amputee in my right hand while my stomach sank to my shins.

I would have preferred the source informing me that the hinge was in its death-throes, ready to gasp its last breath, and just waiting for the Grim Reaper to gently tap it on the shoulder but “rear hinge tender” as delicately lyric yet loud warning was perfectly acceptable for cataloging purposes.

I know how to do simple, elementary binding repair but I know my limitations. This was a candidate for orthopedic surgery. The book was immediately ambulanced to the hospital where a brilliant bindologist performed a miraculous, near-invisible hinge repair.

Oh, what a thrill to inform your employer that the “completely untouched,” thus rare, $30,000 specimen of an already rare book, has now lost value before it’s even paid for!

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