First Editions: Trifles or Treasures?

Old Books

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.

Posted on by
A student of English and Film with an interest in animation, adaptation, and the interrelation between art forms. Avid reader; reviewer and Film Editor for DURA.
Edited by Misagh, Sean Z.

Want to write about Literature or other art forms?

Create writer account


  1. Cecelia Barker

    I’ve inherited an old house filled with volumes of very old books in very great conditions. As much as I love them myself, I have to sell them and many are fairly valuable.

    • Ewan Wilson

      Lucky you! I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t incredibly jealous…I imagine it’s a struggle to part with such a collection if you’re a fellow booklover, but I suppose it softens the blow somewhat if they’re valuable!

  2. I do enjoy to browse through used book sales, and one of the reasons why I love it this much is you find some interesting anecdotes and tales in older biographies and autobiographies especially. An example would be when I read the Autobiography of Mario Cuomo recently, and learned that in the 1980’s he traveld to Italy with Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi was at the time just the leader of Northern California Democratic Party. It’s interesting to read that Cuomo believe she was worth discussing in his biography, considering she wasn’t near becoming the first female speaker…

    • Ewan Wilson

      I have to admit that I’m not familiar with these names, but I agree that used book sales are a great opportunity for some brilliant finds. I have a signed copy of Terry Pratchett’s ‘Lords and Ladies’ which, although not from a book sale per se, I was given second hand. To discover it was signed was a surprising bonus!

  3. Sean Hodges

    I loved this article! I can’t help but agree, there’s something incredibly powerful about holding a book that you know has a history of it’s own – as a somewhat extreme example, I had the very good fortune to be allowed to look at some books that had survived from the mid-1500’s as part of my university course. The idea that they had been ancient when even my great-great-grandparents were kids was just incredible to me.

    • Ewan Wilson

      Thank you! I’m glad you agree; as you say, holding an old book is like holding a museum piece, it’s like time made solid. It’s great that you had that opportunity as a part of your course. My university has an archive which, to my shame, I’ve never actually been into…

  4. Mothwings

    Maybe it’s some psychological thing, but I love being able to see a beautiful book on the shelf and know it’s mine. I appreciate beautiful things and beautifully bound old books aren’t exempt from that. I love the smell, the look, the way they feel, and I know that I am in awe when I get to touch or just see a first edition of something that has survived centuries.
    I think I’ve come to the conclusion that my love for old books is more of an addiction than an appreciation.

    • Ewan Wilson

      I really don’t think that that’s an addiction in need of curing. Unless it becomes a financial strain of course! Old books are a favourite, but I agree that a beautiful binding is just as appreciable. I have a couple of Barnes and Noble editions of classics (Poe, Verne, Dickens, Lovecraft) bound in bonded leather, and they look fantastic.

  5. Brenda Mclaughlin

    Very inspiring post. Thank you for the read.

  6. This is a transition period in my life; retirement. I experienced loss, could not find my personal compass. I decided my job was to read. This activity, or passion, has created a world that grows.

  7. I honestly didn’t know my Harry Potter and Anne Rice First PRINTING Edition books were valuable until last week. I almost sold them on Amazon for under 50 bucks each. Thank you, Google.

    • Ewan Wilson

      Sounds like a close one. It’s safe to say that whoever bought them at that price would’ve had a bargain and a half.

  8. Violet bell

    First Editions are not a thing I value very much. For me, the book, the writing, is where the treasure is. When the writing shines, it lets me escape my own reality; I can visit other worlds, be another person.

    • Ewan Wilson

      A completely understandable point of view, the writing is the raison d’etre for the book. I can’t say that I’d pick up a first edition for its own sake, it would have to be a first edition of a book I like.

  9. Nicola Kahler

    Lovely article! I personally cannot read anything on an eReader, I find the feel and smell of an old, worn book much more desirable and experiential to read. My mother and all her friends, on the other hand, are determined to get me and every other young person they know to join them in their eReader addictions.

    Maybe its an age thing because most people my age prefer physical books… while my parents and grandparents have less objection to eReaders? Maybe because we’ve grown up in an age of evolving technology, it’s nice to hold on to a traditional form of viewing. The baby boomers etc., on the other hand, were forced to adapt to new technology, so simply see the eReader as another form the must adapt to?

    • Ewan Wilson

      I do own a Kindle and don’t get me wrong, aside from it being convenient, once I’m reading a book on it, involvement in the story helps me forget about the book/eBook problem. But given the choice, I’d choose the paper format.

      That’s an interesting theory, I hadn’t really given much thought to the generational difference in opinion.

  10. Arlinka Larissa

    Great read 🙂 I cannot stand eBooks myself. It feels really weird reading from a screen. I want my word porn printed with ink on paper thank you.

    As for first editions, I own a few (usually given), but they always seem so frail I feel like I always have to be extra careful when reading. Any edition is fine for me, except for those books with the movie poster covers. Tacky! I make it a point to never buy any of them.

    • Ewan Wilson

      ‘Word porn’, nice. I agree as to the movie poster covers, I’m really not a fan, both because they don’t look as good and out of a certain pride in proving I ‘read the book first’…

      That’s great. I own a couple too, but none of them old enough to be of any particular value yet. I have a few signed editions which are probably of more value, not that I’d ever consider selling them.

  11. Taylor Ramsey

    I am not a fan of ‘speculators’. The people that buy something of value with the intention of selling it later bug me, so the idea of having a first edition as a keepsake is far more appealing.
    We have so many old books in the house, it often feels like we are running a shelter for wayward books, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    • Ewan Wilson

      I love the idea of a ‘shelter for wayward books’! I’d agree with you as to reasons for collecting, too; I’d rather have a rare book for it’s own sake than for it’s monetary value.

  12. Kathryn

    My dad has always loved to read and, for this reason, in all three houses that I’ve lived in we’ve had a designated room called “the library” where my dad keeps his three, huge, antique book cases that are all completely full. When I was little I used to love to open the big wooden doors and pick up random books, flipping through the pages and smelling them, usually hoping to find pictures. Now that I’m older, whenever I’m at a loss for what to read next, I love coming home and searching through his book cases. It really is like having a personal library.

    Ebooks are definitely handy but pressing a button on a screen just somehow isn’t the same as the experience you get from physically touching the pages and feeling the weight of it in your hands. It feels less personal, less involved. And though I do own a Nook and have, in fact, used it to download a few novels and textbooks for much cheaper than if I’d bought them in a store, I could never do away with physical books altogether.

    Somehow it’s just not the same.

  13. Ewan Wilson

    With their wooden doors, those bookcases sound like literal Wunderkammers. Reading is more of an interest of mine than my parents’, so I’ve had to build my own collection over the years. As you say, although many eBooks are cheaper than their physical counterparts, I don’t know that I could ever do away with paper copies completely. I think that, among other things, a physical copy does more for your sense of ownership than an ethereal eBook.

  14. Well written piece – thank you. One of the joys of Hay on Wye in Powys is ambling in and out of the many second hand book shops coming across treasures you just didn’t know existed. I’ve never owned a first edition signed or unsigned but do understand the attraction of the “first” in anything, The real power of the book, any book, lies in its power to make you think differently about the world not in the physical expression of those ideas….

  15. Riviera Handley
    Riviera De TyTy

    This a rather commendable piece, Ewan. And even with my environmental and minimalist school of thought, I am able to appreciate the sentimental – and often monetary – value of the first edition.

    Oh! Thanks for the reference, too.

  16. Jon Lisi

    A truly great article. It many ways, it’s equivalent to the discussion being had about films. We have more access to content than ever before with streaming services, but we still cherish a physical DVD with a booklet to shelve in our libraries.

    Also, any article that cites Walter Benjamin (appropriately, I might add!) deserves bonus points. And isn’t it wonder that you can just circulate that article online for free for those who haven’t read it? Another reason why open-access is desired.

  17. J. Bryan Jones

    Trifle if I don’t have it, treasure if I do. That’s my thinking.

  18. You hit the nail in the head on this article. Definitely treasures!

  19. Abby Wilson

    Having just spend a cool $150 on Designer Classics (brand new but they’ll be old one day…) I totally agree with the addiction to buy specialised first print or special print editions. I’m beginning to become a book collector and would love to get my hands on a first edition book of anything (ideally Harry Potter, but I won’t be able to get one of them on a Uni student budget!). Very interesting article, and you’ve triggered the need to buy MORE BOOKS!

  20. Francesca Turauskis

    A subject very close to my heart. I’m a writer who works in a library and creates artwork from withdrawn volumes, so I have great love of old tomes. I desperately want a first edition of several books, one day I will have a library of them in my house!

    I have written articles on similar subjects on my other website,, check them out if you can!

  21. Jonathon Wilson

    I completely agree with your article. While there are obviously many that only value books for the words on the page, there are many others that value everything that the word book entails. While I do not have the money currently to go diving after rare editions, I still dream about certain books taht I would love to have on my shelves. I settle now for collectors editions. I hope that the rise of the eBook doesn’t completely end the physical publishing world as we know it, although I can certainly forsee a future where that is possible. My wife would also be very distraught if phsyical books were to go the way of the Dodo. One of her favorite smells in the entire world is that of an old book.

  22. Joe Holland

    Having a first edition of a book is supposed to mean you like the book or the author enough to buy it right when it came out. You liked it before it was cool, as it were.

  23. I am glad your article refers to old books and the pleasure to read first edition. I am thinking about Borges, Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and the movie “84 Charing Cross Road.” I p hope First Editions will never disappear and the pleasure to read it in a beautiful library.

  24. I’m torn about this. On the one hand, I don’t plan to ever own a Kindle or any kind of E-Reader, and I much prefer the feel of a physical book. On the other hand, I try not to be too critical of E-readers, because I guess we should just be grateful that people are reading at all, in whatever form.

    Great article.

    • KimSw

      Good point. I lived in a small town in Mexico for a couple of years where I never found a single bookstore. Thank goodness for that kindle, or else I wouldn’t have gotten to ready anything! Especially not anything new.

  25. I love this! In an age where everyone I know seems to prefer eBooks, it’s so nice to know there are still lovers of real, in-your-hands books.

    Additionally, with a real book comes real pages that you can take notes on or write in, which is especially helpful in college classes or just for the fun of it. I love giving books as gifts, and writing an inscription on the inside title page seems to me a lost art!

  26. Kelsey

    For me anyway, an avid book collector, the books that sit on my shelf compose a sort of map or my life. What I read, whether it is literary genius or a dime store paperback, will inevitably become part of me. I like to look at my bookshelf, my map, as a timeline to see where I came from and what has happened to my thoughts and opinions along the way.

    As far as first editions, I think there is nothing more wonderful than being connected as closely as possible to the author who penned your favorite classic. Like a favorite place visited on your map, first editions of your favorite books always bring back treasured memories. They are the crown jewels of your reading adventures. And I love that.

  27. Helen Parshall

    Excellent piece! I’ve reluctantly made the transition to e-books but there’s nothing quite like the weight of a book in my hand and the smell of paper.

  28. You actually have a better reading comprehension when reading from a physical object as opposed to a screen.

Leave a Reply