RARE BOOK GUIDE - THE RUNNERS, THE RIDERS & THE ODDS

16 March 2010

Do judge a book by its cover...


Some gratuitous advice for dealers, collectors and people of the book -some of it untested and some possibly erroneous. Inspired by Nelson Algren's three bits of advice in his 1956 novel A Walk on the Wild Side -"Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own." The woman in question may well have been Simone de Beauvoir with whom Algren was in a triangulated relationship, the third person being Jean Paul Sartre. Whether she had more problems than Algren is a moot point. By all accounts Sartre and Algren got on well... Anyway here goes with some bookish advice, caveats and absolute no-nos.

I. Do judge a book by its cover. Don't spend ages looking through every book to see if it is worth buying, avoid the recent books of major publishers, off copies of books of this century, ex library, fat books, memoirs of celebrities, politicians and nobs. Avoid all book club, Reader's Union, Folio Society, Franklin Mint and Heritage books (unless foolishly cheap). Almost all recent novels can be ignored...

2. Don't judge a book by its cover. If you find something worthwhile look under the jacket (if it has one) and check contents for underlinings, non authorial annotations, torn or missing pages, stamps, remants of attempts to disguise their ex library status and simple things like missing rear endpapers. Also look for good things like an unnoticed association, loosely inserted letters, ephemera and $100 bills. Do not, as one of our customers used to do, start shaking books to see what falls out -he was after bus tickets.

3. Don't buy from dealers who threaten legal action in their catalogue descriptions. Can say no more. A nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse.

4. Distrust dealers who describe books as 'extra fine.' 'Super fine' is equally problematic. In my opinion fine is as good as it gets, if you want to go one better 'as new' is acceptable. Books in new bookshops are fine, or 'as new' -it can't get any better; 'mint' is also suspect being associated with coins, sometimes comics.

5. Avoid exaggerated or ingratiating descriptions. Anyone who describes Churchill's World War Two as 'very rare' is seriously ignorant or misguided. We also know that WSC was 'a very great man.' Likewise any book where 20 dealers have fine copies is not rare. They may be expensive, in which case they fall into the category 'common rare book.' Anyone buying an expensive edition of Ulysses doesn't want to hear that it is "...perhaps the Greatest Novel written in the Twentieth Century and certainly one of the Rarest volumes sought by collectors. Ulysses is a work of towering genius and of inestimable importance." Resist such blandishments.

6. Take a walk on the wild side. In a new town if you are seeking books don't assume they are all in the main square or even in bookshops. Antique shops and junk shops have to be checked out. Avoid those with grubby old books with notices like 'appraised at $200.' Most appraisers are ignorant slimeballs.

7.Avoid dealers who describe a book as 'good for its age.' It almost always indicates a lousy copy. Condition standards do not change because a book is 50 years old. Even 100 year old books can turn up in fine condition.

To be continued. Suggestions welcome.
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