First Editions: Trifles or Treasures?
We all love books. Despite the advent of the eBook, there’s something about the paper format that appeals to us; paperback or hardback, old or new, the physicality of a book can be as much a part of its appeal as the words contained within. Who doesn’t love opening a new book and inhaling that fresh printed smell? Or better yet, an old book with its slightly musty, woody scent? Printed books, physical as they are, are as much about form as function, and we often take as much pleasure in collecting and displaying them as in reading them. Of course, as with all collectibles, some are more desirable than others; be they first edition, first printing, unusually bound, antiquarian or signed, there’s a huge market for rare books, both for their own sake and as investment options.
But why do we treasure old books?
It’s not a question of content; with the exception of volumes with printing defects which are sometimes sought for their distinguishing flaws, the body text of every one title is the same. Sometimes, as in the case of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere , books are re-released in various editions, such as the ‘Author’s Preferred Text’ reprint, but by and large the story remains unchanged. The printed word is, by nature, produced en mass, and so any individuality, any desirability, begins to accrue once the author’s words are disseminated into individual volumes.
As Riviera De Tyty explains, we are reluctant to abandon the paperback format despite any implications this may hold for the environment. It is possible, she points out, to buy scents which can be applied to an eReader in order to simulate the experience of reading a paper copy of your favourite book. But even so, the sense of time which comes with a physical book is still lacking.
In his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin writes:
Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership.
While it’s true that an eReader, being a physical object, is subject to the passage of time, the eBooks which it contains are themselves unaffected. The eBook format seems a natural extension of the mass-production publication of the book, services like Amazon’s Whispernet allowing Kindle users to download books almost anywhere in a matter of seconds. The text, in this context, is not what holds appeal to the collector. It’s the binding.
‘True’ first editions, generally agreed to be copies from a book’s very first print run, are the most desirable to collectors, along with copies signed by the author. The appeal of a signed edition is self-evident, the maker’s mark instantly distinguishing the volume from its fellows, having been in physical contact with the author. This contact adds to what Benjamin terms the ‘aura’ of the book, the significance it gathers simply by existing in space and time. Likewise, a first edition, being the original instance of the book, has a greater ‘aura’ than subsequent prints.
The physicality of the book is thus what becomes valuable because of its exposure to the corrosive powers of time, older editions having more worth than new ones. The first edition, being the original physical incarnation of a finished book, then becomes something of an artefact. To follow Benjamin’s argument, though it centres on more visual artworks, the auras of subsequent printings of a book are diluted as they spread further and further from their point of origin.
It is true that as soon as a book is given printed form it is susceptible to the withering influence of the passage of time, but it is the first edition’s status as an original, and not its age alone, which is the basis for its value. It becomes akin to a desirable antique, a piece of jewellery or a painting with an authenticating maker’s mark.
With rarity comes desirability, and desirability feeds into our compulsion to collect, to label and display. Antiques are acquired as prized possessions, displays of wealth or, as a slew of auction based reality TV programmes attest, a means of turning a quick profit. Lots on such shows are often described as ‘collector’s items’, their price estimate directly related to their desirability, and the same is true of first editions.
As stated above, prices of first editions are much less prone to fluctuation than those of stocks, and as such they make for stable investments. Being objects of value and rarity, said volumes find demand in the materialistic compulsion to compile a collection of treasures, both for the pleasure of ownership and that of exhibition. Like the Renaissance ‘Wunderkammer’, or Cabinet of Curiosity, where wealthy collectors stored encyclopedic arrays of trinkets and artefacts, the collecting of rare books confers a sense of ownership on the collector which goes beyond that of simply owning an ordinary copy of the book, a connection to the time and place from which the book originated.
Certainly, for those who made the transition from paperback to eBook seamlessly and never looked back, who are indifferent to form as merely a vehicle for content, first editions may seem needlessly indulgent trifles. But for those who enjoy a book in its entirety, both the words, the story and the emotions they convey, and the physical experience, the act of reading a book in all its tactile and olfactory glory, what better than an old first edition? The weight of the words, the scent of aged paper, the knowledge that the book you hold in your hands is the ancestor of subsequent printings…
This is treasure.
What do you think? Leave a comment.