Book Collecting in the Modern Era
A cautionary tale
By Bruce McKinney
Book collecting is a difficult undertaking that requires luck, determination and perseverance and then only occasionally achieves success sufficient to warrant enduring approbation, the payoff that many serious collectors hope for but most rarely achieve. England has its Westminster Abbey to remember its greatest writers and America its museums, institutions and societies to render similar service. In all provinces and jurisdictions authors have their advocates. If successful they may be widely read, their words translated, and their ideas discussed. If their statements and stories are pithy they may even enter the lexicon for a generation or two. Be writer, printer and statesman and your aphorisms may, as they have for Benjamin Franklin, echo down through the ages. But be only a book collector in pursuit of something more than material and you scale the sheer face of an Everest in bad weather. What immortality that is available is most reserved for those who link their collecting with generosity.
Collectors, in the skillful and canny pursuit of material, can achieve a faint immortality themselves through the dispersal of their book plated copies that, scattered to the wind, carry their names as footnotes in the fine print of books well described. For those who have once cared, and by luck or skill owned important copies, the owner's name may survive and perhaps be remembered long after the spirit and the bones have parted ways.
Less often, single owner collections are the subject of auction catalogues and in this way rise another rung toward immortality if only among that few that track ownership and specific copies across the generations. Yet other collectors give single volumes and whole collections to institutions and achieve a recognition that resonates with the IRS but for the institution fades with time unless the donor's name is carved in marble or granite. A few institutional collections bear collector names and even, once in a blue moon, the occasional library their names to future generations. The recognition, however, whatever the level, is always about what was collected rather than how it was collected. The collector at most could hope to join the stygian chorus whose judgments reflect approval and sometimes disapproval of the masters, the writers and sometimes publishers, their first editions, best editions, signed copies, and the perfect and unique ones they pursued through the decades of a collecting life. The judgment and discernment of the collector has rarely been the focus.
This is not to say that collecting cannot achieve importance. It can and I think in the current generation will. For the emerging generation the new calculus will be about how collections are formed and I think cost and value will become a thread in the calculation of achievement. The loss of price as reference over the past fifty years has permitted an upward spiral in price, if not value, that has been based more on the ability to pay than on rarity, condition or importance. In the years ahead great material will continue to obtain great prices while the lesser lights will, like Icarus, fall to earth. In the new calculus deeply focused collections will become the norm, their value and importance enduring. These are collections that will matter whether they are about subject, place, genre or gender. The emerging tools on the web are simply setting the standards ever higher. If the focus has been on high points it will shift to intensity.
Book Collecting in the Modern Era
A Edward Newton: words matter
If you are a collector or someone interested enough to invest a few hours to know more about collecting there is no better place to start than to acquire in AE's Books for Sale:
Books For Sale
There run a keyword search for Newton Book Collecting Game to find copies of "This Book Collecting Game."
It's required reading for what it doesn't say but what we now know. It is an series of essays published in 1928 by a gifted writer and exuberant collector - A. Edward Newton - who has sent to us an unintended cautionary message about the collecting of books and manuscripts. In it he commits the cardinal sin of making judgments in print that have become enduring examples of misplaced confidence. Every book collector should read it for its cautionary message, expressed not in print, but in the readily available facts that have since rendered a somber verdict on his optimism. Make no mistake. A. Edward Newton was a voice, arguably the voice of collecting books and manuscripts of his time. He was very good and also very wrong. The lesson to be learned is not "abandon hope all ye who enter here." Rather, it is to have your wits about you. They who will collect will be knowledgeable.
He trusts and pays a high price for it. He praises Thomas J. Wise as "the great English collector" and quotes from his bookplate a motto which is characteristic of the man:
"Books bring me friends where 'er on earth I be,
Solace or solitude - bonds of society."
Six years later John Carter and Graham Pollard published An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets and established that Wise had forged various items and traded them for real material.
He also speaks with great confidence about book collecting as an investment. In the year the book was published, 1928, most investments made money. A year later the bubble burst. When his collection was sold in 1941 it realized only about 40% of his cost.
In the modern era it is possible to thoroughly research material. It is possible to know how often material appears at auction, the condition of the material changing hands and the prices they bring. With this knowledge it becomes easy to evaluate offers from dealers and listings on the book selling sites.
In this way you can accept from A. Edward Newton his love of the game and, matching his enthusiasm for collecting with common sense about what to pay to collect more efficiently. If Mr. Newton were alive today it is what he would be doing.