Guides to book collecting will tell you that your collection should be focused. Here’s a sample piece of advice for aspiring collectors:
[To build a general library, simply buy the books you love.] Book collecting, however, is another beast. You can go beyond the formation of a general library to assemble a purposeful, carefully built book collection united around a central theme. (from The Art of Manliness)
This advisor goes on to suggest “tried and true” themes, such as the author collection (everything Dickens wrote), the list collection (every Pulitzer Prize winner), the topical collection (the Olympics, or Scotland, or tobacco), and the aesthetic collection (fine bindings, illustrations, the book as a beautiful object). I’m surprised that he did not also mention modern first editions. In my experience, this form of collecting is more favored by men than women.
I have been a book collector since childhood, but I never got the memo about staying focused and purposeful. It was all about buying the books I loved. And yet I wouldn’t call what I own “a general library.” Or rather, I own a general library as well as a set of books I think of as “my collection.” Whenever I talk to other book collectors or dealers, I struggle to explain exactly what it is that I collect. But oddly enough, when I see a book, I know almost at a glance whether it fits the criteria. And these requirements have not changed much since I was a child.
Small size. Sometimes I tell people that I am a miniature book collector, but true miniature collectors have a limit of three inches in height (or by European standards, up to four inches). I’m not quite sure what my limit is, but like Justice Stewart, I know it when I see it. If I like a book for other reasons (content or binding, for example), I’ll tolerate a larger size. On the other hand, I don’t really like micro-mini books (dollhouse size/under an inch). I own a few, the result of trying to convince myself that I am a miniature book collector. But they never really turned me on.
Shape. I like fat little books. This is a preference, though, rather than a requirement. And a big fat book (like a huge dictionary) does nothing for me. It has to be a size that fits in your hand.
Age. Guides to collecting will tell you that age, in and of itself, does not make a book valuable. This is true. Most 19th century books are nearly worthless today in terms of their value to dealers, in spite of being more than a hundred years old. And if all you want is a nice little book from Shakespeare’s time, the 1500s, you can own one for less than the price of a new Xbox. But in spite of the caveats, I value age, for its own sake, and I like books that look really old. I will add a brand new book to my collection, now and then, but usually it has to be printed before 1900 (and preferably much earlier).
Condition. Beginning collectors don’t worry as much about condition, but the longer you collect, the pickier you become. I would rather not have loose or crumbling bindings, “foxing” (those brown spots in old books), worm holes (yes, there really are “bookworms”), or any of the other ills that befall books in their dotage. But if it’s a really rare item which I’ve been seeking out, I will overlook such flaws. I like a binding to be contemporary with the printing of the book, but I’ll take a rebinding if it has been done with taste and sensitivity.
Content. I’m eclectic, but I favor literature (especially poetry) and European languages (especially Latin, Greek and French) as well as English. Because I love really old books, a great many of mine are in Latin. I like books in languages I can read, but I will use a “reading copy” rather than put wear and tear on an expensive item. And some of my books are too small to read comfortably. So I just fondle them now and then.
Special features. I like fine bindings, marbled endpapers, fore-edge paintings, marginalia or bookplates of past owners, and all the other luxurious or individual touches that make an antiquarian book unique. Of course, every book made before the 19th century was unique, each constructed of handmade paper and printed on a letterpress. Publishers did not bind books back then. Owners bought them unbound or in a rudimentary binding, and had them finished according to their individual tastes and budgets. Even after publishers started to sell cloth-bound books, wealthy customers had them redone in more expensive materials (usually leather). Therefore I can (and do) own the “same” book in several different bindings.
And there you have it. Imagine me meeting someone on a bibliophilic tour. I ask what they collect. Children’s books, they say. Medical books. American first editions. Incunables. Woodcut illustrations. And what do I collect, they politely ask. Umm… I usually say “antiquarian miniature books” or “small format antiquarian.” But it’s not what most people would call a collection. My criteria are formed around an aesthetic of the ideal book-as-object, but it’s an aesthetic very few other people share (if any). I think perhaps it’s because I started as a young person, and formed my tastes before I knew any of the “rules” about what makes a good collection, before I even thought of myself as a collector.
Which brings me to the title of this post, “Birth of a Collection.” In the past six months, I have started a second collection, of modern Irish literature, with a focus on first editions of poetry and drama, and especially items connected with the Field Day theatre company. That’s about as focused as it gets. And for me, that kind of collecting is a radically new concept!