Should This Book Be Sliced Apart?
A page from the first edition Book of Mormon from Ms. Schlie's website.
By Michael Stillman
Some articles aren't fun to write. Most of my articles fall into two groups. One is positive, interesting developments that have occurred in the rare book world. These are always exciting, and the second most fascinating type of story to tackle. The other, and number one most interesting, is those about clear evil. Bad guys always provide captivating material. An example is last month I got to write about a map seller who allegedly clipped maps out of rare books at the Yale University Library. No question which category this story falls in.
But then there is that murky, fine line between right and wrong. These are activities that are certainly perfectly legal, and, to some, are totally ethical as well. To others, however, they come across as unseemly, inappropriate, maybe even disreputable. They are certainly within the person's legal rights, though some may question whether it is ethically right. The case of the map slicing, clearly a dastardly wrong, leads to this situation, which inhabits that grey area along the borderline between right and wrong.
Helen Schlie is a retired Arizona bookseller with a very valuable book. It is a copy of the first edition of the Book of Mormon, printed in Palmyra, New York, in 1830. It is, naturally, revered by members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. It was the starting point for a church that now spans the globe, though it is more closely associated with Utah than New York today. Mormons, perhaps more than most groups, are acutely aware of history. They possess what is likely the greatest collection of genealogical research anywhere in the world. A first edition of the Book of Mormon is a most treasured, and collectible, item.
According to Ms. Schlie's website, she obtained her copy over thirty years ago. She does not state how, or from whom, she obtained it. Nor does she say why she has chosen this time to sell it. However, she does say that she wants to make it available "in a way that more people can experience its remarkable influence." Certainly she does have a plan to enable more to experience this rare book, or at least a little of it. That last clause, "a little of it," should be taken literally. You see, Ms. Schlie is cutting her Book of Mormon into pieces, hundreds of them, to be scattered far and wide, among those who can afford her asking price.
If this were a car, we would refer to what Ms. Schlie is doing as "parting out." When a car becomes too old and broken down to run any more, it is sold off in pieces, or parts. This is nothing new with old books. A rare and particularly desirable book that is missing some pages may similarly be broken into pieces. Sometimes, the pages will be used in "leaf books." These are books, frequently about antiquarian or other rare books, that include a leaf from an older title. Other damaged old books are broken down for their maps or plates, which are sold piecemeal. Normally, however, this is only done with defective copies, those missing some pages or possessing serious damage. Generally, a complete book, if it is in good condition, is worth more than the sum of its parts, so there is no incentive to break it apart, or some might say, destroy it.
Should This Book Be Sliced Apart?
Ms. Schlie's copy of the first edition of the Book of Mormon, however, appears to have no such major defects. It is not perfect. Her description says the cover is badly worn, the binding has deteriorated. Still, none of this is surprising for a book of its age. Certainly, the pages appear to be in excellent shape. This book does not need to be torn apart.
From what I have been able to find, the leaders of the Mormon Church have declined to take a position on this action. Some commentators have expressed great disdain, others have said nothing. Ms. Schlie speaks of wanting the book to touch many more lives as a reason for dividing it into so many parts. If so, this feels like something of a Solomon like way of attaining that goal. However, instead of splitting the child in two, this book will be split into two hundred ninety.
Despite Ms. Schlie's noble stated purposes of enabling more people to be touched by her book than would be possible if it were kept whole, I am a bit suspicious. While the value of the first edition has been rising rapidly in recent years, it is not an unusually rare book, there having been 5,000 copies printed (no one knows how many remain). Recent auction prices suggest a value in the $50,000-$60,000 range. Ms. Schlie plans to sell the pages at $2,500 to $4,500 each. Even at the lowest price, that comes to $725,000 in total. Call me cynical, but I can't help but suspect Ms. Schlie is motivated primarily by financial considerations in her decision of how to sell this book. She could still obtain the complete book's value by selling the pages at $200 apiece, and this price would make pages available to many more believers, including those of modest means.
While there are no particular standards which prevent, or even condemn such cutting apart of books, it is a practice that has generally not been met with favor. It is usually acknowledged as acceptable with incomplete books. A book that is missing pages is normally not going to be of much value nor collectible. This is particularly true with a book such as this, which while uncommon, is still available. Evidently, damaged copies of this book have been split apart in the past.
However, I personally hope her plan fails miserably. Not because I have anything against Ms. Schlie, nor am I passing a moral judgment on what she is doing. Attempting to maximize your profits is a perfectly normal thing to do. Here is what I don't like. Even if Ms. Schlie sells only half the pages, and at half her minimum asking price, that is still over $180,000 in total. If successful, the financial incentive for cutting apart rare old books becomes overwhelming. If Ms. Schlie's copy of the Book of Mormon were missing half of its pages, but she sold the ones remaining for her minimum price of $2,500 apiece, she would collect $362,500. That's at least six times what a complete copy is worth. Who on earth would not cut their complete copies apart if keeping them together meant you could only realize one-sixth of what someone else collected for half a copy? Ladies and gentlemen, get out your razors. No, I hope Ms. Schlie's plan fails, for if it succeeds, it could open the floodgates to something I never hope to see. I hope her copy is the last copy of the original Book of Mormon to ever be sliced apart.