Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Are Rare Books Too Good For the Rich?

I just came across a website, Stuff Rich People Love, which has published #80 - Rare Books. It begs for feedback.

Here’s how blogger Chas Underwood III begins:

“James Bryce, nineteenth century British politician, diplomat and historian, said ‘The worth of a book is to be measured by what you can carry away from it.”

Excellent start. But then Mr. Underwood, whose full name suggests old money (lose the “III,” sir, it’s a bit airy), continues:

“Bryce was referring to knowledge, ideas and imagination. These are all well and good if you are a card-carrying member of the public library but to the rich, books represent culture, sophistication and a civilized acquisition. Visit homes of the wealthy and you will discover beautiful libraries that prominently display first edition classics bound in leather, steeped in tradition and occasionally encased in glass. To the uninformed it may appear that the rich are voracious readers, but the books are too valuable to read. So they must be great investments, but they mean too much to sell. What then is the rationale for books you can’t open and objects you won’t part with?

“Rare books reflect an owner’s interests and measure how stimulating one’s host is without having to engage in conversations that may betray their depth of literary understanding.”

It’s all downhill from there, the rich, apparently, guilty of being rich - and too dumb to understand the rare books on their shelves.

Everyone in the trade has, at one time, catered to a client who wanted an instant library and bought finely bound books by the linear foot to fill custom bookshelves, content secondary but recognizable authors desired.

They are a tiny minority. As often as not, blame the interior decorator.

The firm I work for caters to the upper 2% of the rare book collecting world - the socio-economic group that Underwood so dearly loves to scorn.

Not a single one of our clients is a cultural nincompoop, pretentious about their books, nor elitist. They are, to the contrary, a group of men and women who have, for the most part, earned every penny of their wealth through hard work, and, having achieved financial success, decided to collect the books that were meaningful to them as a child, or, as an adult, captured their imagination and interest.

More to the point, they know their books inside out, can robustly discuss bibliographical points, and provide, if prompted, a brief, lucid and meaningful exegesis of content. As often as not, they know as much if not more than the average dealer. I have certainly learned an enormous amount about particular books from wealthy clients who have devoted themselves to collecting in areas I am not an expert in; they are.

Underwood follows with a weakly humorous, condescending view of how easy it is to get a rich rare book collector to demonstrate their intrinsic philistine instincts. I thought the rich patronized the rest of us. Not so. It’s Underwood that’s doing the patronizing, lamely lampooning the rich and everyone else who collects rare books.

“Rare books are outstanding cocktail banter and an opportunity to tantalize and arouse those with literary leanings; little is as stimulating to book lovers as discussing the rising action, climax and denouement of a classic novel. Good luck and Godspeed!”

Tell it to the working-class person who scrimps and saves to buy a gorgeous first edition of a book on railroads that they’ve been waiting to buy for years. They, too, feel that books represent culture, sophistication and a civilized acquisition.

Hemingway was correct when he responded to Fitzgerald, “The rich are different - they have more money.”

And, as the majority of wealthy book collectors that I know well proves, they also have taste and knowledge, the latter, apparently beyond Underwood’s ken, who seems to have gotten what he knows about the book collecting behavior of the rich from a stereotype of his own creation.

I also know collectors whose net worth is not much yet abound in nit-wits. The pretentious book collector is not exclusive to the monied class. Mr. Underwood III - forgive me but I can’t get Chatsworth Osborne Jr. and Thurston Howell III out of my mind - is engaging in the worst sort of reverse snobbery, conclusively demonstrating that elitist boobs can be found amongst any class of people.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email