Understanding the value of books in today’s age: the real reason why books are important and not just a luxury
Sitting at a bookstore is basically like having a ringside seat into the minds of people, to watch them in the company of books is most often a good judge of character. There are some who find the space uncomfortable, almost afraid of judgment because what if their taste in reading doesn’t fit in? There are those who ignore a book because they’ve already seen the movie, or maybe the cover artwork just doesn’t look right. But the singular overwhelming reaction of those who walk in is hope, even in their wonderment at the books themselves or the fact that a bookstore ‘can survive in today’s age’, there is an underlying sense of hope. And while vintage books are a different ballgame altogether, there’s a growing interest in first editions beyond the aesthetic value.
Sometimes these older editions appear in perfect condition but could date back well into the 60’s and 70’s because someone had the good sense to preserve them well. It’s easy to have flights of fancy while browsing through these tomes, imagining the set of Don Quixote perched on a table by the window overlooking the sea. You’d wonder if the salty air has permeated into the pages itself. Whether Charles Dickens ever got to touch the autobiography’s pages with his own hands that now sits in yours. And there is the first aspect to consider about a book, the year in which it was published. This can tell you a lot, from the location of the printing press to the social and political climate of the time. Some times a book is considered rare simply because it was partly printed in one place, and in part somewhere else like the vintage copy of Iqbal’s poetry. Printed at a time when it was impossible to print Urdu text at an English press.
Other questions arise. How would the editor’s introduction have changed for a book published after the World Wars? Would a book on Freud’s humour be tossed into the editor’s face for disenchanting the public? Tracing back to the year of publication can change everything, even if it sometimes must be converted from Roman numerals. In researching this you also learn about the efforts made by printing houses themselves. Take in consideration the letters of D.H. Lawrence that were privately published by Martin Secker or the first edition of the Diwan-i-Ghalib commissioned to Ali Sardar Jafri by the newly formed Hindustani Book Trust. The multitude of Rudyard Kipling’s collected works bound in gilt decorated leather, or Hemingway’s works from the Easton Press. When the publisher of a book takes interest in preserving the text for future generations it is immediately exalted to a higher level one that demands attention and appreciation from every reader.
Another factor that must be taken into consideration is the previous ownership of a book – whether it has been signed, dated, or marked in any other way. In most cases it can depend on the extent, while a few underlined sections may not interfere with the reader’s experience but definitely clue in on what the owner then considered to be of importance, there are cases where the result is also the opposite. Some older books can contain extensive notes, possibly to the extent of compromising the legibility. While this isn’t a common feature it is quite a possibility bearing one exception – the writer of these notes. Until now at Chapter 101 we’ve only had one case where the writer of said notes turned out to be a composer who was particularly fond of the printed poetry. And if that isn’t a case against free verse we don’t know what is!
The final consideration lies in the condition of the book with regards to the spine, more often than not a book ends up being reset and bound if it has been damaged to the extent of loosening pages. This, while severely diminishing the value of the book provides a better reading experience in that you don’t need to be on eggshells while going through it. Other times the pages have foxed edges which usually doesn’t interfere with the legibility of a text unless the actual print has faded but is most often considered the touchstone for a book to be old/rare. While handling book with foxed edges it’s recommended to use clean hands, wash with a super mild soap both before and after. Or if you’re feeling fancy get a pair of latex gloves on.
Thus in the final stage of research, once the condition of the book has been determined it also determines how much longer the book can survive on a shelf. Books may not be very demanding but older editions do require a nice cool setting, preferably away from the dust floating around open windows. In many ways purchasing an old or rare book is more than it’s luxury/aesthetic value, it is accepting the responsibility of preserving the text for the next generation, of passing down the hope that books can someday save the world.
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