“We collect, therefore we are,” an appraiser once told me. She may have been right on some level, but this simple, philosophical paraphrase only hints at the real reason behind our need to own great books.
There are two types of people when it comes to books: collectors and readers.
I’ll start with readers, going in reverse order, as they are not our main subject of concern, but are nonetheless important for us to consider here. Most readers are in the book game to read the content of the books they come in contact with. Many collectors fall into this category for some of their reading, as do people who read for enjoyment. Some readers go to extremes, mutilating books as they read them: dog-earing pages, dripping sauces on them, or otherwise mauling the book as they go. Many readers rarely or never own books of their own, preferring the public library or book exchanges.
In short, readers are people who enjoy books for their content, their entertainment value, and for their usefulness as tools. They are consumers of books, not lovers of the books for their own sake. Obviously, many people who enjoy books are not collectors and many collectors are not really readers either. There is some overlap, though, which is why it was important for us to consider readers before moving on to our main subject of concern.
People who collect books do so for varying reasons. Most will agree that books have an aesthetic value: their look, feel, even the “ambiance” or “mood” they emit by their jacket and cover designs and general appearance. Some collectors collect the information contained in the books themselves, with little concern for the condition of the cover or bindings. Others are bankers, interested only the book’s potential resale value in the current collector’s market. Still more are “fans” who collect only books by particular authors. Many of us combine several of these traits into our collection’s overall theme.
Owning a rare, vintage, or collectible book is a grand experience for any collector. After all, anyone can go into a book store and buy a current edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, but not everyone owns a first edition printing and even fewer own the even rarer first edition English printing (printed before the American version of this work)! Owning a first edition, English printing that is in nearly pristine condition? Nearly priceless by even Sotheby’s standards.
Most collectors, no matter their reason for collecting, tend to take care of their books, some getting quite elaborate in doing so. After all, to us, a book is another member of our family and should be cared for. You would take careful care of that Monet painting, if you had one, so why not your early edition of Spyri’s Heidi?
Often, collectors see beauty and art in their books beyond just the words contained within them. For me, it’s the smell of an old book, the firm and delicate feel of its binding in my hands as I carefully turn the pages, and the knowledge that what’s in the book I’m holding may not be available anywhere else, because later editions are often “modernized” or edited by the printer for various reasons.
Many times, a book with the signature or a hand-penned note from the author are also highly prized members of a collection. This signature and personal writing gives the collector a personal connection with the author and ads to the provenance of the book itself, usually raising its value.
Your reasons for loving and collecting books may be different than mine, but no doubt you have a reason that is compelling enough for you to spend your time and resources in acquiring and protecting them. The returns, as you may well know, are greater than the sum of your input. Like children and pets, books are objects of adoration, love, and endless sources of happiness for us as collectors.
Beyond this, many collectors see themselves as belonging to a select group of individuals. If you own one of only 200 existing copies of a rare edition, you are a part of that very small group. If there are only fifteen existing copies of an extremely rare collectible, you are in league with libraries of large caliber, universities, museums, and very proud collectors. There is more to collecting than just the words and bindings, but that does not cover it all. For us, as collectors, there is something more, something intangible to the books we love.
That is why we collect books, really. Like all humans, we enjoy beautiful things. We see beauty in bindings, covers, and most of all in words. We have a love for the written word and the books that convey them that may be unusual to some people, but to us, it’s almost indescribable. They have their TVs and their luxury cars. We have our books.
As Henry Ward Beecher once said, “Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house.”