Last year I attended the Antiquarian Book show in NYC. There were over 100 exhibitors, some from as far away as Japan and Germany, displaying some of their best wares. These prized possessions were selling for thousands of dollars, sometimes tens of thousands.
What I didn't quite understand was why a book from the 13th century that was selling for around $25,000 was standing up and left in an unsupported position. This seemed to repeat itself from display to display. Though these books are solidly made and have lasted centuries, I couldn't figure out why they weren't boxed up or firmly encased on their flat side. These books seemingly would benefit from a protective casing. It is the equivalent of parents who hold their infants in awkward positions, not fully supporting their head and neck. The site of it makes you cringe.
There were many single sheets of book pages for sale. By selling 700-year-old pages as if they were pieces of art it makes the total sum of the book's pages worth more than what the book itself would sell for. But even there, I saw $12,000 pages for sale and they were in what looked like a cardboard holder with plastic around it. Put that in a nice frame. They sold ten-thousand-dollar items as if a ten-dollar comic book was retailing at a comic book show. I take care of my 35-year-old baseball cards better than some of these expensive items.
Of course if anyone knows how to tenderly care for our rich collection of old or classic first editions it is these exhibitors who make a living trading in our rich cultural history. If you think about it, it is these dealers that help society determine what is to be valued and preserved. They are the curators of our publishing past.
They preserve and promote books but do not do much to inspire the reading of them. Books become collector's items, taking intellect and creativity and commoditizing then as if untouchable jewelry or pieces of unbuilt real estate.
Like with any hobby or industry, the pricing of these items can be highly subjective, but are based on a number of factors, from rarity, age and condition to the significance of the book or writer. In the digital age, the contents of any book can be made available but these books represent pieces of publishing and world history.
Collecting books also promotes the existence of physical books. Fifty years from now people will not be collecting ebooks. So by preserving the past, we help promulgate a future that values physical books.
There easily had to be more than fifty million dollars worth of books on display at the local armory, and yet, it sometimes had the feel of being at a swap shop on a Sunday where used watches and T-shirts are typically sold by the bundle.
As a novice to book collecting I believe the show would have benefited from a section where speakers can be heard discussing trends and issues confronting the antiquarian book industry. I also think the exhibitors could have done a better job, perhaps through signage or fliers, highlighting what they are known for. Their specialties were not always obvious to me.
But I thoroughly enjoyed attending the show and recommend you visit one in your neighborhood.
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