On Convenience, Scarcity, and Pleasure:
A Letter on the Occasion of the Launch of Greenlight's First Editions Club
As a buyer and seller for the nation’s preeminent rare and antiquarian book dealer, I am often asked how the big changes taking place in publishing will affect the collectability and value of books. This seems to me to go about it from the wrong end. Let me begin with a digression.
The other day I read two articles of the death-of-the-book variety, each with a twist. (Needless to say, I read them online.) According to one, a group of Harvard geneticists announced they’d encoded a book into 55,000 strands of synthetic DNA. Though still a distant prospect, the thinking is that entire libraries of information and beyond will be stored on miniscule genetic flash-drives that can last centuries. In the other, a well-known contemporary artist (and inveterate book collector) had repurposed an Upper East Side apartment into a conceptual installation of limited edition artists’ books, classic pulp paperbacks and obscure subculture zines. They crowded linen closets, silverware drawers. A different type of engineering, this was an environment tenanted by outré printed matter, to the exclusion of people (indeed, the location of this pop-up gallery was a closely guarded secret).
Now I’m not a Luddite, and begrudge no one the convenience of his or her e-reader. Nor, as a rare book dealer, do I disparage notions of scarcity and exclusivity. But as a reader and lover of books what strikes me as missing, or unaccountably on the defensive, is unalloyed pleasure. Pleasure in getting the latest book by one of your favorite authors, savoring its gargantuan heft or gnomic slimness, riffling its serrated pages, smelling its papery smell, feasting on its cover art and design, clocking the passage of time by the new wrinkles evident in the author photo, and most importantly, gauging the ranks and blocks and stacks of type in which you anticipate losing yourself. Really, nothing compares to a book.
Let’s back up a minute. Historically speaking, books have been collected practically since the advent of print, in the mid-15th century. Coveted by both scholars and the well-to-do, they were sought after for their craftsmanship and beauty as much as for the knowledge they contained. And first editions, the earliest printed copies of a given work, reflect the material and moral circumstances of their time, and show how a great work of literature or a revolutionary new idea first announced itself to a world that didn’t know it was waiting.
Meanwhile, when accomplished book collectors die, their libraries are often sold, en bloc or book by book, ensuring that new generations experience the rhythms of collecting, the rigors of supply and demand. In this way, over time, market values accrue: to individual books, and to collections that, assembled by a discriminating intelligence, can be greater than the sum of their parts.
But that’s all quite lofty. In short I don’t worry too much about future collectability and value. Books can be beautiful, they can change the way we think. They make meaningful gifts, and serve as benchmarks in our private lives. Certainly as digital (and genetic!) technologies encroach upon print culture books as objects will stand increasingly as rarities, and first editions will appreciate in value and reflect prestige back upon their owners. These are all excellent, relatively uncomplicated reasons to buy and collect books today. But if you’re at all like me, you want to have real books, ready at hand, as soon as they come out, because you just enjoy the hell out of them.
Manager, Bauman Rare Books
Member, Greenlight Bookstore First Editions Club Selection Committee