Valuable old books

Draft of 2004.06.16 ☛ 2005.06.16 ☛ 2016.07.16

I sought advice from a local bookseller yesterday regarding a lot of 1700 old books from the early to late 19th century I’m thinking of buying. I’ve already bought a few from the pile on eBay, and while they are a mixed bag of barn-stored damage and worn mustiness, many of them are not merely rare, but nowhere to be found on the Net. That is to say, not just missing from Project Gutenberg, but also not listed in ABEBooks.com’s or Bookfinder.com’s or even Google’s catalogs. Utterly absent.

Getting somebody else’s copy out of the Rare Books collection of a library is just not the same.

My friend the local bookseller is a smart guy, but of course approaches these things from the standpoint of (a) being a traditional bookseller, with some online listings at ABEbooks and a computerized local inventory (of sorts), but (b) somebody who feels that damaged goods are good for nothing. You hear this a lot among booksellers and antiquarians, of course: The only people who make up their meal-ticket customer base are other dealers higher up the food chain, rich University libraries, and rich collector customers. All looking for pristine, beautiful, original, clean books, worthy of placement among the hallowed shelves.

That’s both smart and foolish.

Smart because of the inherent bottlenecks and limitations of the antiquarian books trade: the Inventory Problem crossed with the Marketing Problem. It’s a pure combinatoric explosion, actually. There are too many books in the world, all effectively unique after they’ve reached a certain age. There are too many potential buyers in the world, but these buyers have extremely specific interests and utilities. The market is appallingly inefficient because it’s practically impossible for any given buyer to happen across a particular book they’re seeking that is described in sufficient detail to catch their attention (the Inventory Problem), and practically impossible for any seller to identify the correct prospects to which they should promote a given book (the Marketing Problem).

Foolish because of two things, though. First, online consolidation of sellers’ catalogs has begun to solve both problems. So there’s a bit of neo-Luddite “computers are hard” stuff in there, especially while the bugs are working their way to the surface at eBay and ABEbooks and the like.

But the deeper and more dangerous foolishness I’m most concerned about is the continued and increasingly antiquated assumption that books must be of the highest quality, and that anything exhibiting breakage or needing rebinding or too heavily foxed or crayoned or torn is utterly worthless.

Bah. Bullshit. Better than bullshit: a mistaken assumption that could be just the hook for a really smart entrepreneur with sufficient doses of bibliophilia, marketing skill and antihistamine to cash in on, bigtime.

I was delighted to receive my battered, moldy, rather damp copy of The Christ of the Red Planet a few days ago in the mail. Why? Because the only other copy described on the Net appears briefly in a bibliography. Because I think the works of kooks and crackpots offer insights into the sociology and psychology of belief, and are an under-explored tool for explaining some of the most ridiculous beliefs held by those in power in our modern life. Because it’s rare, regardless of its condition.

Because it’s just too damned cool. This book, of which there may be a few dozen copies in the world, is now sitting here waiting to be scanned and shared with everybody. And my copy is inscribed by the author. Physical remnants of history, right here.

In researching the work, we have stumbled through the web of implication to Amy Lowell (and her brother Percival), the Theosophists and the origin of the New Age movement, to self-publishing firms and their catalogs of amazing crackpot literature and bad poetry, to the origin of the idea of a Writers’ Market. All that from this almost-lost work.

So what’s this book worth? Nearly nothing—my friend would pitch it, and most of the other booksellers I know would as well. I might sell it on eBay myself for a few bucks. I paid $41.76 plus shipping.

Why? Because I knew that the book in question held all that potential of implication, interest and astonishing correspondence. I have a sense of that, developed through the years of visiting the Opera section of library book sales instead of the thronged Science Fiction area, of searching the Foreign Language section for art books instead of the Art section, for asking antiquarians if they would tell me where I can get hurt, damaged, or trashy books that were more or less complete.

When I buy one of these pieces of trash, I’m buying content. I don’t care about the pretty package. I care about the back-story, the meaning, the context, the sense, the archaic sensibility, the illustrations, the marginalia. Screw the leather binding and the mustiness and foxing.

In the process, I have stumbled across amazing scenes of historical import, have learned more about the things I’m interested in (as a tiny sample: crackpots like Alfred Lawson and William Kendrick Hale, the earliest days of cybernetics and complex systems research, relationships between the Vienna Secession and Symbolist artists, and the social network of mad Gothic artists and authors). Stuff that nobody else knows, because it’s secreted in a dying—really truly vanishing—population of books that are all too damaged or messy or unsightly for sellers to save.

Am I alone? I don’t think so. My wife’s like that, too. Many of the people I myself sell messy old books to are like that.

Bloggers of a certain sort, I think, must also be like that. Concerned with trivia and “neat stuff”. People for whom the medium is not the message—the context is.

Have you ever sat down and read an old book from the 19th century or earlier, perhaps with its covers off or a nasty mustiness, and lost yourself in it?

Some of those books are endangered. They’re running out. The attitude of most professional booksellers towards them—either destroying them or never buying them so that those offering them for sale destroy them—inevitably reduces the number in the world. Look at the Corvey Project. It’s got to be the tip of a cultural iceberg.

When next you’re in a bookstore, ask them what they do with damaged old books and magazine, the really messy stuff. Then either make a disparaging face, implying how foolish they are, or if you’re really ambitious ask them to set it aside for you. I pay online sellers just the cost of packing and shipping, and often as not they’re pleased as punch to be rid of it.

The least you can do is experience the lost and esoteric world directly. The best you might consider is saving it.