Friday, December 10, 2010

An Introduction to Book Collecting from the WSJ

A wonderful article today in the Wall Street Journal on book collecting.  Collecting Literary Treasure by Goran Mijuk offers a brief overview of collecting.  I don't agree with everything in the article but I loved the fact that Mijuk includes reference to Aristotle, perhaps one of the earliest bibliophiles, and J. Pierpont Morgan who created one of America's most impressive and important private libraries.  With reference to recent auction results for rare books and opinions of current collectors it is a wonderful introduction to the passion for books that defines the bibliophile.

Many years ago while starting out my career in scientific publishing I asked a Fellow at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research how he kept up on the ever evolving world of science and research.  He offered a simple piece of advice, "I read the Wall Street Journal everyday.  Follow the money.  If they write about in the Wall Street Journal money is flowing to the area."  My Father gave me the same advice when I was in high school and I've been reading the WSJ ever since.  If book collecting is featured in the WSJ, money is flowing towards collecting books.

In terms of book collecting vs. collecting fine art I do disagree with the last bit of the article.  There, Peter Selley, senior director and auctioneer at Sotheby's, suggests,  "Compared to works of art, which can be displayed, books tend to be a solitary pleasure."  I believe there are as many reclusive art collectors who surround their private retreats with personal collections as there are reclusive book collectors.  However, book collecting encourages a much more obtainable and inviting social experience. 

Acquiring a rare book is often less expensive then acquiring a piece of fine art.  I would bet that when entering any home with a well stocked library guests will gravitate toward the books on the shelves.  A home library is a social place.  Sharing the treasures of book collections is a social act.   The wise collector, if facing a choice between pursuing fine art or books, will find more bang for the buck in collecting books.  It often pains me deeply to see a single page of a rare book displayed as fine art.  That page, separated from the master copy, may challenge the rule that the "whole is greater than the part" but really, owning the complete book trumps the treasure of owning a single page.  At the high end of collecting, whether it is fine art, books, automobiles, coins, stamps, musical instruments, experiences, the cost is prohibitive to most.  Why spend a life pining for that which you will never be able to afford?  My money will always be on books!

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