Rare books have an image problem. To the unfamiliar, they seem to have the epithet of ‘boring’. Musings begin with something like: “It’s a book that is, well, old. I can buy a new copy from Amazon for a fraction of the price and have it delivered straight to my home”. This proposition though misses the point. Rather, we may want to ask a different question: “What can we learn from a rare book?”. By refining the question, we create a different approach and engagement. On a beautiful Autumn day, I embarked upon my second visit to The Chelsea Rare Book Fair. My objective: to explore this sentiment within a misunderstood yet nascent industry.
A bit of context goes a long way……
Let’s start with clearly defining what constitutes the archetypical ‘rare’ book: its age (an obvious one), the scarcity of its supply (whether it is a limited edition), and any special aspects of its physical construction (special binding for example). Today’s printing market is on a scale that Johannes Gutenberg, the mid-fifteenth century inventor of the original printing press, could have never imagined. Historically, book production volume and uniformity were drastically different. Mass book production today has resulted in an incongruous mix of convenience at the expense of appreciation for the physical quality. When supply was restricted, only the most important books were marketed. A clear consensus evolved between academics on which books were published; thus forming the literary canon of authors that exists today. Classics became classics by the preservation in rare book libraries of the wealthy.
When examining the physical attributes of a book, what do we need to look for exactly? The anatomy of a book by Jenna Nichols (opposite) offers a useful visual illustration of the constituent parts of the book. Be fastidious. Assess its functional design: the binding (front and back boards), spine, format (cover boards, edges, endpapers, gutter, hinge), and paper (type, ink, font). The description of all physical aspects becomes the bibliography (or inventory) of the book, which is the backbone of the rare book. Analysing a book’s merits of quality and condition are vital factors in determining the book’s value; monetary or otherwise.
Perhaps rare books should not be viewed as ‘old books’ but as historical artefacts. They each have a unique chronology and can enrich our appreciation of personal heritage. Sadly, today’s commonplace book has been reduced to the single purpose: as a vehicle for delivering information. In order to re-claim this steadily declining trend, we must appreciate the broader spectrum of qualities that books embody. They have a triple purpose: appealing to the eye, the mind, and the imagination. The great books appeal to all three.
What to expect……
In the past eighteen months, I have frequented a few book fairs, as well as visiting rare book resellers like Peter Harrington. Nevertheless, it appears to me that there is an increasing vogue about collecting rare books. The Chelsea Rare Book Fair, a staple in the rare books calendar, boasts that “There’s something for every interest – poetry, children’s classics, modern fiction, gardening, cookery, sport, military, crime, art, architecture, travel”. When I arrived on a Saturday afternoon, and after working my way through an unexpectedly intense security search, I immediately basked in the melange of literary choices. There is something intensely calming about being surrounded by books, particularly the visual delight of a vintage leather-bound kind. Instantly, I knew I was going to enjoy this intellectual experience.
The fair was split into a maze of individual seller stalls. As I began my scholarly journey, I immediately revelled in the heterogeneity of items; the website slogan did not exaggerate. Tangential to the cross-section of subjects, a collage of artefacts were on view: contemporary original books, watercolour paintings (including a Chagall), powerful black & white photographs of JFK, encyclopaedia’s, historical maps (a cartographer’s paradise), and an incredible range of poetry. As I strolled around, the whole event was oozing knowledge. Sellers were eager to discuss their collections and impart their wisdom on patrons willing to lend them an ear.
When probing the rare book industry, the dominating resistance will be the investment needed should one desire to make a purchase. Prices range from the more modest £70 to beyond the dizzy heights of £000’s. Let’s be honest; it’s initially off-putting. However, purchasing is not a mandatory pre-requisite. My guidance would be to approach this event as you would a trip to the museum, with the advantage of being able to handle the items on display. The fair is an opportunity to get up-close-and-personal; to understand what previous generations wrote and interested them. The real treasure lies beyond the physical book itself; for it is the history of the individual book that unmasks its place in time. Take a look through any inscriptions and signatures, and imagine where this book has travelled. Turn every page deliberately and with thoughtful action, examining for annotations and condition. This attention to detail provides a much greater appreciation for the humble book. As society continues to accelerate the digitisation of books, hard copy books will become less familiar to our children. Maybe our literary re-birth resides in what we now call ‘rare books’, and thus instilling a higher degree of reverence for these historical pieces.
The essentials: prices and standards……
Chelsea town hall is located a ten-minute walk from South Kensington tube station (circle line). For free tickets, you can register in advance via the website. Otherwise, a charge of £10 per adult is payable on the door. Upon entry, there is a free cloakroom service where items will be securely stored. Towards the back of the hall, there is a modest sized seating area. It comes with some basic refreshments of tea, coffee and a limited wine range. For those searching for a snack, there are pastries and crisps on offer too. There is no dress code, but of course shorts in November may be an adventure too far!