As a commodity books are abundant. They’ve been written on countless subjects, in every field of endeavor. Even as bookshops disappear, the Internet seems to make virtually any title readily available, and most can be had for a few dollars. In this day and age one might reasonably wonder, what makes a book rare?
The historian and bibliophile Paul Angle, quoted in John Carter’s indispensable reference ABC for Book Collectors, cites three sensible criteria for rarity: “important, desirable and hard to get.” Like Angle, I tend to think of rarity as a compound phenomenon, a series of discrete but related attributes that, when all present in one book, bestows a special quality, greater than the sum of its parts.
The first question one might ask about a book pertains to its relevance. Is it recognized? Has it stood out in some way, in its own field if not the wider culture?
There exist many books on arcane or abstruse subjects. Some of them may exist only in small numbers, but because they never rise to a level of general interest they are not sought after. Though scarce, they are not given the opportunity to be considered “rare.” More importantly, one should ask, is this book specifically of interest to me? It seems obvious, but collectors have been known to spend time and money in pursuit of books they think they ought to have rather than those they want to have.
IMPORTANCE & DESIRABILITY
This speaks to Angle’s first two conditions: importance and desirability. Next, one should consider a book’s bibliographic profile. Is it a first edition, i.e., from the earliest batch of copies to come off the printing press? And is it a first printing of the first edition?
Book collecting rests pretty solidly on the notion that the earlier the edition, the closer we come to the writer’s own world — to the standards of material production of the time, and the way in which first readers experienced the work. Failing a book’s being a first edition, one might ask if it’s an otherwise significant edition. Changes made within a text can be historically interesting in their own right. Charles Darwin kept making modifications to On the Origin of Species (1859), with each of the six editions published in his lifetime bearing his changes. A completist would want all six.
Book collecting rests pretty solidly on the notion that the earlier the edition, the closer we come to the writer’s own world
Another consideration is condition. Is the book complete, and without significant flaws? If it’s an older book, is it in the original binding? If not, is the replacement binding early and/or skillfully done?
Contemporary taste gives preference to authenticity, to a book being as close to its original state as possible. Interestingly, this wasn’t always so. In the 18th and 19th centuries many earlier books were rebound in sumptuous but period-inappropriate styles. This can make original or very early bindings harder to find. With regards to a modern book, is the original dust jacket present, and what is its condition? Dust jackets are crucial in the collecting of modern first editions, because they are the most fragile and ephemeral part of a book’s production. As such they can account for upwards of ninety percent of a book’s value.
Contemporary taste gives preference to authenticity, to a book being as close to its original state as possible.
Scarcity is the final factor, what we think of as rarity in the most limited sense. How many copies of a given book were printed in the first place, and how many of those have survived? Further, how many are likely to be available at any given time?
Over the years universities and libraries have acquired many of the most desirable books. The folio and quarto editions of Shakespeare (that is, the earliest examples of the Bard’s works to have been printed), or Edgar Allan Poe’s notoriously rare first collection of poems Tamerlane (1827), or the first book printed in colonial America, the Bay Psalm Book (1640), of which only 11 known copies survive — such books seldom come to market.
Of course, scarcity is also a function of the first three factors: the most important and desirable books, in their earliest editions and in the best possible condition, are naturally sought after by the greatest number of collectors, and so they become ever harder to find. This may be discouraging to some, but I find that it presents beginning or adventurous collectors an opportunity.
The most important and desirable books, in their earliest editions and in the best possible condition, are naturally sought after by the greatest number of collectors, and so they become ever harder to find.
With so much generally available, there’s plenty of room outside of collecting orthodoxy for a fresh take. Collectors ultimately get to decide what’s of interest to them and, adhering to some sensible guidelines, which will be the rare books of the future.
Erik DuRon has nearly 20 years of experience buying and selling rare books in all fields, first at Bauman Rare Books in New York City, and then independently. He has built collections for diverse clients, and collaborates with and consults for collectors, booksellers and auction houses. He lives in Brooklyn and can be reached at email@example.com.