Saturday, March 1, 2008

Look, but Don't Touch?

A couple years ago, I came across a first edition of Eleanor Estes’ THE HUNDRED DRESSES -- surely one of the best-loved children’s books of the twentieth century. Since I already owned a copy of this classic short novel, I planned to sell the second copy. Part of the excitement of reselling a volume is, of course, the idea of earning some extra money to add to my book-buying fund. But there is also the thrill of knowing I’m getting a particular book into the hands of someone who will really treasure it.

Shortly thereafter an e-mail acquaintance expressed an interest in buying THE HUNDRED DRESSES. I sent her a description of the book and a scan of the jacket, similar to what you see here:

She immediately wrote back asking me to scan the spine and back panel of the dustjacket.


Then she wanted me to remove the jacket and scan the front, back, and spine of the book’s red binding.

Oh, she also wanted the endpapers scanned.

AND the inside backing of the dustjacket!

Next came the questions: What was that off-color stain on the front cover? (It was a spot where a drop of water had once hit the book, as I had already mentioned in my description.) Was that a loose thread at the top of the spine? Why were the endpapers so dark? Could that stamp-sized bookstore label on the back endpaper be removed? And please send another scan of the dustjacket backing -- it looks like the front illustration is bleeding through onto the back!

The potential buyer finally turned down this perfectly-nice, perfectly-presentable (but not perfectly-perfect) book, saying, “It just isn’t up to my standards.” By that point I was glad she wasn’t getting it. Instead, I sold it to someone else, who was thrilled to get it. And I was thrilled to sell it to someone who appreciated the volume despite its very minor flaws.

I’ve been thinking of that incident all week, ever since a new friend of this blog sent me an e-mail on the subject of collectors who feel “that bookplates and author signatures, gift inscriptions, and even bookstore labels depreciate the book. And interestingly, when you hunt [for books] on-line, these points are always listed, sort of with regret. Along the lines of ‘Beautiful copy, near fine except gift inscription to prev. owner on ffep.’”

He added, “Well, I am a huge fan of these bits of history. I love finding a book that has all of that stuff in it. ...I believe that there are fewer gifts more personal than a book. So, to have a little inscription “to Susie from Aunt Millie” or “Christmas 1978 from Grandma” shows that the book was carefully given. I treasure these messages.”

Me too.

Like everyone else, I love finding a pristine copy of an old children’s book and adding it to my collection. Who wouldn’t? But at the same time, I’m reminded of those appraisals on television’s ANTIQUES ROADSHOW where someone brings in a 1940s toy still in its original box. The antiques appraiser says, “It looks like this toy was never touched!” and the owner says, “No, I wasn’t allowed to play with it when I was growing up.”

What’s the point of a toy you can’t play with?

Or a book you can’t read?

I’d much rather own a book that contains a bit of history.

Many serious collectors have a disdain for dustjackets with price-clipped corners. I can understand their concern (they’re afraid that a later-state dustjacket with a different price was placed on an earlier edition of the book.) But I can also understand why someone in the past clipped the corner of that jacket before giving the book as a gift. For one thing, it was an earlier generation, when people were more modest and less ostentatious; they’d no more give a book with the price on the front flap than they’d give a sweater with a price tag dangling off the sleeve. There are other cases where people clip the price because they’re embarrassed that they spent too much (“I know the limit for our class Secret Santa gifts is three dollars, but I like her so much I wanted her to have this five dollar book”) or too little (“My father is out of work and I don’t have three dollars for our Secret Santa, so I’m cutting the corner off this dollar-fifty book.”)

Others hate bookplates and labels from bookstores. I don’t. Both provide hints to a book’s provenience. A bookplate tells us that the book was valued by (and possibly loaned out by) its original owner. Plus they, as well as unobtrusive bookstore labels -- usually pasted onto the back bottom endpaper -- are often fairly attractive.

I agree with my correspondent about gift inscriptions as well. They tell us that the book was carefully chosen, carefully given.

And I’m amazed that some collectors even dislike author inscriptions! I’m assuming they don’t mind simple signatures, with or without a date, but they just don’t want any extraneous words scrawled inside by the author. I do. To me, this shows that the author took that extra moment to personally dedicate the book, or write in a personal comment. Many of my favorite authors are long-deceased, so I’m never going to get them to sign a book “To Peter” for me. So I’m just as thrilled to get a copy that’s inscribed “To Bobby and Matthew.”

As for those other things that bothered the potential HUNDRED DRESSES buyer: a dime-sized water mark, a loose thread, a slightly-darkened endpaper...well, the book is over sixty-five years old. How many PEOPLE make it to age sixty-five without any signs of aging?

I hope my erstwhile customer found a perfectly-perfect copy of THE HUNDRED DRESSES. I’d like to see her collection of children’s books some day -- each one bright and tight and shiny, having spent decades without ever being touched. I’m sure I’d admire that library. But there’s the difference between her collection and mine:

Her books have been admired. Mine have been loved.


skynyc said...

I want to share one of my favorite personalizations. Got it at a church sale about 15 years ago. Copy of Mary Rodgers' A Billion for Boris. On the front endpaper is written "For Lisa, Love Aunt Gay and Uncle Charlie. Christmas, 1974. P.S. Without me, there'd be no page 150, 151 or 152...and Mary Rodgers will autograph this for you one day." The pages described are about a little girl named Gay. I had the opportunity to have Mary Rodgers sign the book for me and she wrote..."The inscription is written by Gay and Charlie Lord, very, very good friends of ours...Poor Lisa!"
Anyone else?

Esperanza said...

I agree completely! One of your favorite books is a Goodwill paperback with a signature and rather shocking comment to my daughter from Maia Wojceichowska.

Anonymous said...

I bought an old book at a used book sale solely because it had written inside, in a shaky, elderly hand, "One of my pet books". I just had to give that pet book a good home.

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Sky: Poor Lisa indeed! I love finding "association copies" where someone the author knows is somehow cited in the text. I have a couple myself, but I will save them for future blog entrie. Thanks for visiting.

Eperanza: Maia Wojciechowska seems to be known for making shocking comments in her inscriptions. I have a couple (one of them was the subject of my early blog entry "My Favorite Christmas Present") in which used some R-rated language. Thanks for visiting my blog.

Anonymous: I think I love you!