I have a lovely, scholarly sister who works as an English professor. She, better than anyone else I know, certainly is acquainted with and knowledgeable about great books. This level of education and passion is what makes someone a great book collector. My sister is not a book collector by any means, but what she knows about books can help interested collectors select the best titles for both their bedside tables and their bank accounts.
Informed book collectors know which books to covet and which ones to condemn. If you want a recommendation about a great book to read, I say that your best bet is to consult with an avid reader. And if you want to know about the market for a particularly great book, ask an appraiser who is an avid reader. If you want to start your own collection of fine literary masterpieces that are as interesting as they are valuable, my advice is to start reading.
In this age of Nooks, Kindles and other electronic readers, I have found over the years that the best collectors in any field are the ones who know their stuff inside and out — no matter the format. When it comes to books, knowing the field surely describes my sister. And if I need the inside scoop on the best titles, she’s my “go-to girl” on the topic.
Whether you are interested in displaying or digesting your collection of old books, the book collector is not a thing of the past. Many people are enjoying the process of seeking out and assembling enviable libraries. Here are some tips to remember when collecting old books:
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• Books were made differently in bygone days compared to the way that they are made today. The paper used in centuries past had a high acid content and wood pulp, which promotes yellowing over time. These pages can easily rip, crease, tear and discolor. Touching them repeatedly can dry out your hands as you read these cherished titles. Be gentle.
• If you are reading your old books solely for enjoyment, take care when turning the pages and when opening the cover. Don’t stress the binding by opening and closing the book too often. Books should be placed on their side, not upright upon a shelf.
• Use a book stand to host an aging book whenever it is convenient. This accessory will help to keep the binding strong and the pages intact, and protect the overall structure of the book. The condition of your old book will affect value, too.
• Books featuring imagery by important illustrators hold their value in the marketplace, such as “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” with John Tenniel illustrations or “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. Other famous illustrators can affect a vintage book’s value like Beatrix Potter, E.B. Lewis, Rockwell Kent, etc.
• Good condition is very important. If you can, purchase or retain original wrappers, dust jackets and slipcases; these accessories can increase the value of a vintage book.
Reference books have been known to hold their value, such as the “History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark” — which was published in the great book city of Philadelphia in 1814 and now has a value of $60,000. While historical tomes are important and pricey, great novels that masterfully chronicle a time and place, such as Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” and Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” are valuable. Similarly, books that highlight a particular genre or make an impact on the history of literature, like J.R.R. Tolkein’s “The Hobbit” and J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series of books, are favorites with collectors.
The Getty Museum purchased a circa-1470 first edition copy of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” printed by British publisher William Caxton. The museum paid a remarkable $7,565,396 for that book. It was one of only nine surviving copies, and the hefty price tag was a record price paid for any printed book.
So, before you put old books that are gathering dust into a box and bring them to the a local book barn or neighborhood yard sale, find out what your bookshelves hold in terms of content and cash.