Why I Don’t Collect Rare Books, Yet, Anyway

While in Paris, Alicia and I made it by the famous Shakespeare & Co. mentioned in Christina Hamlett’s wonderful guest post about browsing for books in Paris. I’d first heard about it in Hemingway’s Moveable Feast. Here, Hemingway borrowed English (language) books while he was living in writing in Paris. We had been hopping around, seeing sights from the Arc de Triomphe to the Eiffel Tower. In my list of things to see in Paris, this was the first item on the list. I loved the store. It was particularly crowded because it had just started raining and people were taking cover inside to avoid the shower, but everyone was quiet and well-mannered. It’s easy to be that way when you’re in awe, I guess. Or maybe in the brotherhood/sisterhood of book lovers there is an unsurpassed bond which makes decent action the only action.

At one point, Alicia slipped out and went next door to the rare book room. She was trying to surprise me with a gift, I think. I clumsily stumbled over to the area where she was browsing and ruined the surprise. As we were talking about which book I might want I realized I don’t really have a desire to collect rare volumes. Despite how much I love books, I fall into the camp of rationalizing the purchase along these lines: for the cost of one rare book I could buy 5-10 or more paperbacks or e-books and they’ll mean just as much to me.

Now, I realize I am missing something that makes a collector want to collect anything, not just books. I collected baseball cards as a kid so I get the idea that there’s a nonutilitarian attachment that can come into play. I also get the idea that they can be investments if you research thoroughly and purchase smartly. I just couldn’t bring myself to start collecting books even though I was in the perfect place to start a collection.

I think the thing that had me scared is that I don’t want to make books so sacred a thing that I can’t enjoy them thoroughly. What I mean by that is that there is a chance that a thing can become too sacred, that it becomes more ritual than experience. I don’t want books to be that for me. I want books to be more like a good friend than a Catholic Cardinal. I want them to be more like a freshly baked loaf of bread than the Eucharist. I want them ultimately approachable even on the days when I don’t expect to be able to make myself presentable to the rest of the world. I want them available always and without an appointment. I want them impartial to me even if they have opinions of their own.

As we left I’ve reflected on that conversation quite a bit. I wonder if my attitudes will change over time. I wonder if I will, eventually, find a book that delves into the sacred. I can see my attitude changing somewhere down the road when my thoughts turn to what I’ll leave behind instead of what new adventure lies ahead. Maybe.

What are your thoughts? Do you collect books? Why or Why not?

Photo: Some rights reserved by Marcus Meissner.

19 Replies to “Why I Don’t Collect Rare Books, Yet, Anyway”

  1. Very interesting post, Brandon. I guess I’d have to say that I do “collect” books since I have a wall-to-wall bookshelf. But my books aren’t rare or expensive, but rather reminders of “places” I’ve been and and “journeys” I’ve taken, through reading. And although I value, and “collect,” books, I LOVE to spread the wealth by loaning them out, passing them on, and sometimes even giving them away.

  2. That’s a pretty fair summary of my approach, too. I did buy three books at Shakespeare & Co. and they stamped them. I bought Moveable Feast, The Great Gatsby, and a literary “zine” that was local to the spot. Those books mean something to me in relation to that place, so in a way I guess that is collecting, it’s just not collecting rare or expensive books as you point out.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. I collect books. But not the rare kind, because I tend to be hard on my books. I do love to buy old books at flea markets and open markets as souvenirs, though.

  4. I too have a houseful of books. I am of an age that I have to check myself to see if I’ve read a book before buying it. Some books are definitely for re-reading, but most are just fine with the initial message I receive. My problem with rare books is the danger of thinking of them as “Rare” or “valuable” when the truth is that all books are rare and valuable. The again, it might be cool to own a Gutenberg Bible…

    1. Yeah, I guess the follow up question should be, if you won a raffle for a Shakespeare “First Folio” would you sell it or keep it? Of course then the answer might depend more on economic status than desire.

      I like your comment about all books being rare and valuable. That’s good stuff.

  5. Books of ANY vintage are a treasure and we have several rare books in our collection. The only thing I really worry about is the frequency of handling them. Perhaps we should invest in some white gloves? 😉

    1. There you go. An equal opportunity book enjoyer.

      Would the gloves be made by John Shakespeare?

      Now as I think about it I should have referenced that scene in The Great Gatsby where the man with owl eyes can’t believe that Gatsby’s books are real! That always cracks me up.

  6. I’m a mixed bag book collector. I have some books just because I love the illustrations. Others because there is something about first editions published by beloved authors. The author was, more likely than not, alive when it was printed and, in some cases, it was the first book he or she ever published. How exciting! Many older books (as evidenced by their survival!) are not fragile. The bindings can be repaired as can the paper. Maybe you can start out with rare newspapers – which is also quite rewarding – and less expensive.

    1. Illustrated books are hard to match and the Kindle does not handle them well. I could see spending money on those. Particularly if the book has a map! You need that map in hand when you read, right? Tolkien comes to mind here.

      You raise an interesting point. Maybe to collect rare books you don’t need to spend money on old ones, instead you can prognosticate and buy first editions from new authors and hope they really make it. Thanks for pointing that idea out.

  7. I think we’re talking about rare book copies? I mean, a signed copy or first edition of Les Miserable would be something. But the story is out there all over the place. I don’t have the money to buy rare book copies but I’ll get the paperback version of the great old classics just so I can read the story and know why it’s so valued.

  8. I never really had a ‘book fetichism’ – as I have heard some people call it – until my family and close friends started giving me the Penguin Hardcover Classic Collection for holidays. As a so-called “artist” myself, I love the cover designs that Coralie Bickford-Smith did. They all look so beautiful on my shelf beside one another. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen them anywhere, but they are really something (and not too expensive either!)

    I do find, though, that my hardcover books tend to withstand a little bit more torture than my paperbacks, which makes me a bit more willing to spend a few more books and get a hardcover version.

      1. I had never really seen those until you pointed them out, but they are attractive books and would fill up a shelf nicely.

        I become more and more partial to e-books everyday, particularly when I think about ever having to move out of my house!

  9. Interesting post.
    I’m not a book collector. I frequent the library. And I think books are meant to be shared. Besides, I currently lack the time, space and funds to devote to collecting.

    1. Thanks. I completely understand that. I go through phases with the library. For the most part these days I haven’t been using it, instead opting for buying the Kindle version where available, but that is not great for your consumer spending budget.

      1. Does your library offer Kindle books? I think ours offers some electronic versions (I don’t know all the terms) that a patron can check out for three weeks. I still prefer a traditional book I can hold in my hands and turn the pages of.

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