Last night my brother and sister-in-law and I attended the Georgia Antiquarian Book Fair which is being held in conjunction with the Decatur Book Festival. Some fifty antiquarian book dealers, mostly from the south but some from all over the U.S., gathered at the Holiday Inn in Decatur to show off (and hopefully sell) their fine, beautiful, and rare books. Plenty of books there were well over a hundred years old. Many modern first editions and signed books were on display as well. You could get a first U.S. edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets — or a first British edition of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban — for a mere $400 each; a lovely first edition of Finnegans Wake was being offered for two thousand dollars; and then there was the advanced reader’s copy (galley) of To Kill a Mockingbird listed at $19,500.
It was fun looking at all the books, and I even bought one: a reader’s copy of William Blake: The Politics of Vision by Mark Schorer (for five dollars plus tax). Living off of the modest wage of a Catholic bookseller (and the even more modest royalties of books I wrote 3-7 years ago), I am hardly in the position to drop a couple of thousand dollars for an extra copy of Finnegans Wake (I already own two copies). Frankly, I’d rather take the money and spend it toward a nice vacation in Dublin, where I could read Finnegans Wake in its natural setting.
Maybe I’d feel differently if I had money to burn. But I don’t have money to burn, and that’s okay. So I’m left thinking that there’s a difference between being someone who loves books and someone who loves the idea of rare books. As a book lover, I think a book is worth only what the most inexpensive reading copy on the market costs. In other words, if you can get a reading copy of To Kill a Mockingbird for, say, ten dollars, then if you buy the galley you are basically paying $19,490 for a fetish — on object that has value only because it is rare, or unusual, or is in some way perceived as valuable. The intrinsic value of the book is really only ten dollars. As for the text in a book: well, that’s priceless, but that’s another conversation for another day (let’s just say I believe there’s a difference between relative value which hinges on how rare or how much of a fetish a book is, and intrinsic worth which is linked to the art of the writing). Now having said all this, I confess that I do have books in my library that I’ve paid a fair amount of money for; but they aren’t the kinds of books that collectors of modern firsts are attracted to. Examples include Maire MacNeill’s The Festival of Lughnasadh, a study of the survival of Irish pagan practices into the twentieth century that was published in the 1960s and now long out of print; and Showing of Love: Extant Texts and Translation — a limited edition of all the early manuscripts of Julian of Norwich’s revelations, collected into one oversized book. To me, these are truly valuable books. Not because they’re pretty, or because somebody famous signed them. Simply because they contain not readily available information that I want to read, to study, to learn. As I suggested above, it’s what inside a book that gives it its true worth, beyond whatever its current market value might be.