How To Tell | Newberry

How To Tell

“Tell me how to look for collectibles in my grandfather’s estate,” a donor asked me once.

“What kind of books did he collect?” I replied, trying to get some general guidelines.

“All kinds,” she said, in despair. “If you could just give me a page of things I should look for, it would be a real help.”

So I told her about Par Lagerkvist.

Par Lagerkvist was a Swedish writer who was part of the generation horrified by the mass deaths of World War I. He got over that eventually, and moved his work toward an examination, in prose and drama, of the nature of good and evil, a theme that served him well as the world went through another World War. He strove for simplicity and brevity as he matured as an artist. His masterpiece, Barabbas, was published in 1950, and in 1951 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is one of the Nobel laureates nobody reads much now, because most of his work is in Swedish, and his translated works are so short that nobody thinks much of them. (If it isn’t a lot of work to get through, it can’t possibly be Literature.) The paperback of Barabbas, which sold millions of copies, is exceedingly slim.

“I think my grandfather had that,” said my donor. “Is it collectible?”

“No, alas,” I said. “I wish it were, because we get half a dozen copies of it every year.”

“Then what’s it got to do with the price of first editions in Chicago?” she asked me. I told her a bit about my life as a Book Fair manager. Her eyes glazed over, as most people’s do, but I told the story anyhow.

Eons ago, when I was merely the Book Fair Secretary, I used to leave town for months at a time. In my absence, Evelyn Lampe, he Book Fair curator, would ask the volunteers doing the sorting to keep their eyes open for collectible paperbacks, one of the areas I was trusted with. She would tell them what to look for as they sorted, and they would save things for me.

And every year, upon my return to the Newberry, I would find several lovely copies of Par Lagerkvist’s Barabbas waiting. I have not READ Barabbas, but I have read of it, and I see enough copies every year that I COULD read it if I wanted to. The point is that it is not considered a collectible by most of the book collectors in northern Illinois, or, for that matter, North America.

The volunteers felt it SHOULD be collectible. They listened to me explain that what were collectible were the trashy books people used to throw away: those early paperbacks of the Maltese Falcon (especially if the dust jacket Pocket Books experimented with was still there.) The pornographic paperbacks of the fifties are collectible, because people were so quick to throw them away. (Sold one of those for $120 in 2015.) Some romance novels were even then becoming collectible, because people read them and then threw them away, never guessing the author would go on to become a famous mystery writer. One of the volunteers told me she thought the people were right to throw such stuff away, when it was Nobel Prize paperbacks which ought to be collectible.

“I don’t think he had any romance novels or pornography,” my donor broke in at that point. “Is that all that’s collectible? What about first editions?”

“Every book ever published had a first edition,” I said. “So first….”

“So first editions aren’t collectible, either.” She nodded. “That’ll save me some time. How old should a book be to be collectible?”

I started to tell her about the book from 1521 which turned out to be worth sixty bucks, but I could see she was just waiting to make a mental note that OLD books aren’t collectible, either. I do get a lot of requests to write a quick guide to what makes a book valuable, and people believe I’m just being secretive when I try to tell them it isn’t easy to compress thirty years of book experience onto a page or two. So I have reduced the whole to two basic rules.

A book is collectible if someone wants to collect it.

A book is valuable if someone will pay you a lot of money for it.

You can take those to the bank.

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