Some old things are valued not for their beauty (like an Old Master painting) or their intrinsic value (like a diamond necklace), but for their sheer scarcity. Such is the case with a major sale of rare and antique books scheduled later this month at Sotheby's.
In the early nineteenth century, books were still a luxury item, and a status one at that. Gentlemen prized their libraries. It was customary to purchase a new book in "drab boards" – a nondescript pasteboard cover – from one's favorite bookseller, and then send it off to one's bookbinder to have it handsomely bound in leather and gold embossing, to match the others in one's library. As can be imagined, few of the drab board versions remain in existence today; in most cases, they would have represented the lowly "remainders" to a bookseller, the failed copies that didn't sell, and shuffled off to an ignominious end.
For collectors of rare books, a first edition in drab boards with uncut pages (in other words, a book unsullied by reader's hands) can be the holiest of holy grails, and more holy still if that first edition represents an author whose star of fame had a posthumous rise. This is certainly the case with the Sotheby's sale, which will include this three-volume first edition of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, above. If you're interested in bidding, I hope you've been saving your pennies: Sotheby's is estimating the books will sell for 75,000-100,000 GBP at auction, and very likely more.
I have to admit that I see these plain-clad books not as a collector would, but as a fellow writer. Was this the version that Jane first saw of her new "baby"? When the package arrived from the London printer, did she open it with the same trepidation that modern authors do, worrying that sentences might have been transposed or signatures inadvertently omitted? Did she cradle the fresh new book in its drab cover, and marvel at that personal victory of imagination and hard work now transformed into printed words for all the world to see and, with luck, to buy?
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.