It’s a Book—Not an App
To put it simply, for many of us involved with the recreational or professional pursuit and use of rare books, we’re not spending as much time with books as we once did. We may be buying more of them and finding out more information about them than ever before, but a great deal of this acquisition and research is being done with no reference to or use of physical books themselves. Just as a musician spends a large number of hours with an instrument in order to become proficient, or a magician devotes a great deal of practice time in order to appear natural when manipulating cards or coins, a book collector can also benefit from spending as much time as possible with real books, rather than with pictures of them.
The more time you spend with books, the better you’re able to develop an awareness of all aspects of books, and how these books, in all of their variety, look and feel. Looking closely at lots of books at every opportunity—from bookshops to book fairs to libraries to yard sales to your own collection—helps to develop all of your bookish senses, and the more you do it, the more you’ll notice about books that you just hadn’t noticed before. Whether it’s an awareness of the diverse textures of cloth on nineteenth- and twentieth-century books, the detection of repairs to bindings, or the different appearances of early and modern hand-coloring of illustrations, as good as the reference literature on these topics may be, it can’t replace long-term experience with the books themselves.
The more books you look at, the more you’ll see in them, especially if you keep your mind open to new possibilities and new aspects of potential interest. These can include physical characteristics, such as the differences in thickness and weight between the Little, Brown first edition and the Book-of-the-Month Club edition of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, or the large number of variant bindings on The Mississippi Bubble by Emerson Hough. There can also be striking variations in what publishers chose to include in their respective editions, as there were in the maps contained in the first British and first American editions of Richard Adams’ Watership Down. Earlier books also present constant learning opportunities, from the easily observed marks used by printers to sign and identify leaves, to the often overlooked physical and bibliographical evidence of bearer type or pinholes.
But one of the most important things you can learn from looking closely at a large number of books is an awareness of which characteristics are usual and common and which ones are not. Collecting should be based on judgment, not just money, and this judgment comes from knowledge, including the knowledge gained from long and deep observation of the objects you’re collecting. At the opening of A View of Early Typography up to About 1600 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), Harry Carter wrote, “Type is something that you can pick up and hold in your hand.” Carter’s reminder to students about the physicality of type shouldn’t be overlooked by book collectors. A book is also something you can pick up and hold in your hand, not something you can download to your phone. If you’re a book collector, you should take every opportunity to pick up and hold books whenever and wherever you find them. You’ll be surprised at how much they’ll be able to teach you.
Books, in great numbers, should be your primary teachers, but there are several individual books that are especially helpful in giving you guidance on what to look for. Philip Gaskell’s A New Introduction to Bibliography (first published by Oxford University Press 1972; reprinted, with corrections, 1974; reprinted by Oak Knoll Press, 1995) provides a very good overview of the way that books were produced in both the hand-press and machine-press periods. David Pearson’s Books as History: The Importance of Books Beyond their Texts (revised edition: Oak Knoll Press, 2011) is an interesting look at some of the things books of different times and places can teach us today. Apart From the Text (Private Libraries Association and Oak Knoll Press, 1998), by Anthony Rota, offers a detailed examination of many of the physical aspects of books, from the perspective of an experienced antiquarian bookseller. Though a number of Rota’s statements about books before the early nineteenth century are fairly general, his sections on more modern books (Rota’s stock in trade) are much longer and more informative, and they provide excellent background information on what to look for when examining books closely. Finally, the recently issued Book Jackets: Their History, Forms, and Use by G. Thomas Tanselle (Charlottesville, Virginia: Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, and New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2011), is the most comprehensive work yet published on a subject that’s central to the interests of many present-day collectors and booksellers.