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In Plain Sight: The Book As A Work of Art

Books are often overlooked as works of art. From the medieval illuminators to Johannes Gutenberg to William Morris to the Easton Press, books have often straddled a line between artwork and repositories of information. We see them every day, crammed onto shelves in our homes, at our libraries, and our local bookstores. They are the chameleons of the art world, blending into the background of our daily lives. Sometimes these books that are so easily overlooked are hiding wonders far greater than the words printed upon their pages.

In June 2019, a large auction house sold an inscribed first edition copy of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species for $500,075 – more than double its expected selling price. This book had been held in a private collection for over a century, passed down from one generation to the other. On the flip side of this coin, in early 2017 a woman sold a second printing of The Federalist Papers that her husband had dug out of a neighbor’s garbage can for over three thousand dollars. These hidden gems have even come out during the age of online retail, as a customer for an online bookseller recently opened a copy of Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling for which she had paid $5.99, only to find that it had been signed by the author!

With the dawn of the Internet Age it has become much easier for those of us who are not particularly experienced in the identification of rare or valuable books to make semi-educated guesses on what we have and what their value may be. It is also easy to overlook certain identifying traits which may differentiate a valuable edition of a given work from one that is relatively easy to come by. As anyone who has ever sold off a relative’s book collection just to “get it out of the way” knows, used booksellers do not always have the time to individually research each book.

The book market today is being flooded with rare books, with some of them not having been seen in decades. More recent works by such notables as Maya Angelou, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, and Richard Wright are coming onto the market for the very first time.

Thanks in part to the popularity of the Netflix television series The Haunting of Hill House, a first edition of Shirley Jackson’s classic 1959 novel is a particularly sought-after item. Gone are the days of dust-covered shelves and stuffy personal libraries that still smell of cigars smoked long ago. Book collecting has caught up to the mainstream.

Now more than ever booksellers need a wide pool of knowledge from which to draw when making their assessments of an individual item’s worth. It isn’t enough to know books and books alone; especially when dealing with rare books anyone trying to give an accurate appraisal of a book’s value needs to be aware of trends in popular culture, music, fine art, and even sports.

It seems strange to think that only a decade ago, newspaper and magazine articles the world over lamented the death of the book. As booksellers, online retailers, rare book dealers, and auction houses have shown, the book as a carrier of stories, information, and personal histories is as with us now as it has ever been. Though they can blend into the backgrounds of our lives easily, a knowledgeable eye can pick out the truly unique and ensure that they remain an ongoing part of the human story.

Image 1: Title page, first printing of A Treatise on Ancient Painting by George Turnbull, 1740. Photo by author.

Image 2: Title page, signed first printing of Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. 1969. Photo by author.

Image 3: Illustration, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1908. Photo by author.

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