On Collecting

Why Collect Rare Books?

As you hold in your hands the first edition of any great book, you hold a part of its history: that moment when it was first presented to the world, new and original, without commentary or judgment. In that book you hold, there is an echo of all of the trials it has survived, from intentional destruction through censorship to the more mundane years of handling and simple neglect.

Many of the most desirable first editions battled great odds to survive. Only 1250 copies of Darwin’s landmark On the Origin of Species were printed, and all were sold on the first day; the publisher had vastly underestimated the demand. Walt Whitman was hard-pressed to find financing for the first edition of his extraordinary Leaves of Grass, which consisted of only 795 copies--part of it typeset by the poet himself. It is believed that the first printing of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights numbered as few as 250 copies, and today it is counted among the great rarities of English literature. Although it is not exactly known how many copies of Shakespeare’s immortal First Folio were printed, there could not have been many: surviving copies are exceptionally rare.

With every great first edition comes a story—the creative effort that propelled it into being, the practical negotiations that brought it into print, the popular reaction that brought it immediate fame or committed it to contemporary obscurity. A rare book collector knows that story and appreciates all of the book’s struggles and successes.