The rare book trade, like every other area of endeavor, has its own idiosyncrasies and rituals, traditions and history, language, and secrets. Book traders, unlike some other professions, have never been hesitant to put their secrets, recollections, and thoughts on paper. There are several intriguing and instructional publications available that explore the inner workings of the rare book market. We canvassed dealers and collectors to come up with this list of the top 10 novels that every book collector should read.
Let’s start with the novels that are more educational:
The definitive treatise on book terminology. The latest version (the 9th) has been updated to incorporate phrases generated by the internet as well as visuals for the first time! With deft wit and humor, John Carter and now Nicholas Barker peel back the layers of meaning from words that, although once ubiquitous, now seem dreadfully arcane outside of rare-book groups.
ABC for Book Collectors is a great primer to our shared language in a profession where it’s critical that buyers and sellers understand what they’re talking about. After learning the language used in the secondhand book trade, you’ll need a guide to assist you figure out if the book you’ve come across is of special worth and/or interest. While getting to know an expert rare book dealer is the best method to get this type of knowledge, ABAA members and serious collectors have several excellent volumes on hand for continual reference.
Book Collections Allen Ahearn2 and Patricia Ahearn Allen and Patricia Ahearn’s Collected Books: The Guide to Values
The Guide to Values, written by ABAA members Allen and Patricia Ahearn of Quill and Brush, gives information on some of the most popularly collected books, as well as tips on distinguishing one edition from another and suggestions on average pricing for collectable editions. “If any single item can be considered essential equipment for today’s book collector, it is Collected Books…this richly informative reference volume offers authoritative guidance for every manner of bibliophile, from beginning book hunters to hard-core veterans,” said noted book collector and rare book expert Nicholas Basbanes (about whom more below).
Because every publisher seems to utilize somewhat different methods for identifying first editions, a reference book that gathers and discusses these practices is essential. For this reason, many professional bookstores carry a copy of Edward Zempel and Linda Verkler’s First Editions: A Guide to Identification on hand.
Identification of First Editions in a Nutshell. Bill McBride’s A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions. The modest size of this book is its greatest asset. You may really keep it in your pocket and bring it out to see whether the book you’ve come upon is a current first edition or not. It’s ideal for visiting secondhand bookstores while on vacation, as well as yard sales and other unexpected chances to pick up old books.
There are several memoirs and nonfiction work that explore the world of rare books and the psyche of the bibliophile, in addition to reference and identification guides. Nicholas Basbanes, author of several works on book collecting and the history of the book, has maybe made this beat his own the most. One of them will be highlighted since it is an excellent start to book collecting:
4. Nicholas Basbanes’ A Gentle Madness
A Gentle Madness “captures that last moment in time when collectors pursued their passions in dusty bookshops and street stalls, high stakes auctions, and the subterfuge worthy of a true bibliomaniac,” according to its publisher, and is a fascinating work of history for those of us who love old books, book-selling, and the quirky characters who populate the antiquarian book world.”
“A Gentle Madness is chock-a-block with such weird and intriguing people, each more delightful than the last,” Michael Dirda said in the Washington Post. Basbanes beautifully highlights comparable goals, commitment, and occasionally pure biblio-lust on practically every page. Nicholas A. Basbanes has put together a fascinating collection of eccentrics, isolates, charmers, and visionaries in this enticing and very interesting book.”
If you’re new to serious book collecting, you should read Basbanes to get a sense of what you’ve gotten yourself into.
Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels
Parnassus on Wheels, described by ABAA member Oak Knoll Books as “perhaps the most renowned bookselling novel in the English language,” is a story about a young woman who owns a traveling bookshop and her subsequent adventures. The Haunted Bookshop, published in 1917, was such a success that it prompted a sequel (1919). When this list was first released in 2015, many people lobbied for Parnassus on Wheels to be included, which is astounding for a book that is over 100 years old. That error has now been corrected!
Henry Petroski’s The Book on the Bookshelf
From scriptoriums to the computer era, this is a vital and fascinating study on the evolution of the book as a physical item. Petroski is an engineer who approaches the evolution of the book as a physical item, as well as the impact it has had on the construction of furniture and structures where books are stored and used, with a highly practical eye. Books may have developed in a variety of ways, but Petroski explains why they took on their present shape.
Neil Pearson’s Obelisk: A History of Jack Kahane and the Obelisk Press
In his review, Nicholas Clee of the Guardian observed, “Everyone with an interest in literary history will love Pearson’s tale,” and it’s simple to understand why. Jack Kahane created Obelisk Press in order to profit from scandalous and controversial works in order to publish authors he admired but knew would sell poorly (Henry Miller, Anas Nin, Cyril Connelly, Lawrence Durrell, and even James Joyce). Kahane was a fascinating figure who was characterized as “a somewhat unusual combination of ultra-sophisticated, avant-garde literary entrepreneur and, by the standards of his period, pornographer” by one journalist.
Pearson’s book is part bibliography, half biography (although a brief one, since Kahane and Girodias were cautious to delete correspondence and the press’ paper trail), and part rambling collection of anecdotes about authors, booksellers, and minor literary figures in Paris between the wars.