12 June 2008

Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen, 1899.

Thorstein Veblen. THE THEORY OF THE LEISURE CLASS. An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions. Macmillan, NY, 1899.

Current Selling Prices
$2500-$5000 /£1200-£2500

A 'sexy' economics book, or at least it was. I 'accidentally discovered' a copy of this in the late 1990s at a high end West Coast bookshop for $100 and I got about £1200 for it. Sadly this doesn't happen every day. At the time it was a 'sleeper' and there were no copies on the net - the dealer had priced it from an auction record of $90; it had however appeared in Quaritch catalogues and economics was, at the time, le dernier cri. It is a regular size octavo in dark green vertical grain cloth lettered gilt at the spine. It doesn't look expensive or rare or important.

Although he produced nine books between 1899 and 1923, Veblen's academic fortunes did not prosper. Veblen (pictured above) had taught at Stanford and in fact they forced him out in 1911; after a somewhat rackety career he died in a shack in woody Menlo Park in 1929. In the iconoclastic 'Leisure Class' he had applied Darwin's evolutionary theories to the study of modern economic life, highlighting the competitive and predatory nature of the business world. With great humour he identified the markers of American social class, and he coined the term "conspicuous consumption" to describe their displays of wealth. A number of Veblen's other basic concepts and insights have become widely accepted in American socio - economic analysis: these include the 'sense of workmanship' 'culture lag' and 'conspicuous waste.' He also said: 'All business sagacity reduces itself in the last analysis to judicious use of sabotage...' the kind of thing Adam Smith might have said if he was less of a gent. Prophetically, Veblen warned specifically against the belief that the engineers are capable of taking over and running the system...

I was reminded of Veblen the other night watching John Travolta being interviewed by Jonathan Ross (not shy himself in material display). Travolta talked modestly of his personal Boeing 707, his 40 strong entourage and his 3 permanent pilots who live nearby his foolishly large house with its own runway and a second jet (possibly a mere Gulfstream.) Veblen had noted that wealth was most conspicuously displayed in a person's middle years. There is a book about the art collector Charles Saatchi ('SuperCollector' by Hatton and Walker / Artology) written along Veblenian lines showing how contemporary art is a perfect vehicle for the display of wealth and how it also also trumps other peoples wealth with its implication of taste and sophistication. Some wag once said that 'collecting modern art is a rich man's way of making poor people feel stupid.'

VALUE? It has made as much as $2800 at auction. It seldom shows up in limpid condition. Heritage, who have a predilection for the book (possibly it resonates in L.A.) have a superior 'fine, fresh' copy at $6000 and apart from a signed copy (which I have never heard of) it cannot get higher than that. Lesser copies are available at between $3000 and $4000. It is not madly scarce and the show may have rolled on in terms of desirability but it is still a wonderful book to find overlooked somewhere. The whole text can be downloaded at Gutenberg Project, reprints are available for a few dollars more but nothing beats owning the book - one of the great titles.

STOP PRESS. I was prompted to revisit this masterpiece when I stumbled upon some pictures of Travolta's house-cum-airport, a stunning demonstration of conspicuous consumption. It was at Testar Logistics. Also I came across this piece about the book in Max Lerner's 'Ideas are Weapons':-
"Into it he poured all the acidulous ideas and fantastic terminology that had been simmering in his mind for years. It was a savage attack upon the business class and their pecuniary values, half concealed behind an elaborate screenwork of irony, mystification and polysyllabic learning"
Currently there are 2 firsts on the web, a modest condition copy at £2500 and a lousy copy at £1300. I always feel that ugly and shabby examples of books should be priced at about a 10th of a very good copy but condition seems to have gone out of the window on the web and 50% or even 75% of decent seems to be the norm. However much you loved the sage of the Stanford woods would you want to pay over a grand sterling for a copy described thus? - "A few library marks, insert removed from rear endpaper. First 2 leaves barely attached. Front inner hinge tender. Green cloth fraying at tips, scuffed. Scattered, light pencil marks mostly to margins. Light spotting to endpapers. Ex-Library." A self respecting French dealer would bin it. The book seems even in these troubled times to be somewhat on the rise, all the copies mentioned above have sold since September 07. The late unlamented Heritage may have taken their copy home, none have been seen in the rooms for 3 years. A limpid copy or a signed one should easily double the prices up top.


Anonymous said...

Hilarious blog!!!!!! Do review more antiquarian books of the leather, finely bound, period binding type if you please.

Anonymous said...

And facsimiles (e.g. stuff from Facsimile Editions, Adeva, etc.), illuminated reproductions, etc. etc. if you double please.

Bookride said...

Thanks. Will try to do a bit more antiquarian. And might do a facsimile or 2 (did Codex Seraphinus.)

Hilarious? I wonder if that has become a new word for 'exceptionally good' or 'brilliant' as in 'that was a hilarious Hamburger'...

Anonymous said...

Yes, hilarious may be thus construed !

I thang yew.

Anonymous said...

Travolta has three planes, one made of denim

Anonymous said...

If you want a great quick read, find H. L. Mencken's essay "Professor Veblen and the Cow," in which HLM gives Veblen a beautiful thrashing. It's almost as good as Twain's opinions of James Fenimore Cooper.