The Art of Book Hunting and Bibliophilia

There are book collectors, then there are amateur book collectors, and then there’s me. I’m like an amateur amateur. That said, I’ve read quite a number of books about book collecting and am happy to share my recommendations about those. Below you’ll also find reading recommendations for books about: books; the history of books, libraries, publishing, presses, dictionaries, and reading. If you have a recommendation, please send it my way!

But first, a favorite comic:

A comic that lovingly mocks collectors of physical books

Comic by David Malki at Wondermark.com (thanks for letting me use it!)

Book Recommendations 

Book hunting comes with its own language. To learn it, I (and seemingly everybody in the book hunting world) recommend:

  • ABC for Book Collectors 

Nicholas Basbanes has written a number of absolutely wonderful books about book collecting and book collectors. There hasn’t been one I haven’t loved.

  • A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books 
  • Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book Hunter in the 21st Century
  • Patience and Fortitude: Wherein a Colorful Cast of Determined Book Collectors, Dealers, and Librarians Go About the Quixotic Task of Preserving a Legacy 
  • On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History (this book traces the history of paper, but if you are interested in books-as-objects, my guess is you’ll love this, too)

Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern were rare book dealers and best friends. Individually and together they’ve written a variety of books, including some books about books that are real gems.

  • Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion [my short review]

Other non-fiction memoir(ish) books about books that I recommend and/or love:

  • 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (if you’re into stories about beautiful reader-bookstore people relationships, you must stop reading right now and get this book.) There’s a followup, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, but I much prefer the first.

Nonfiction books about rare book dealers, building collections, etc.

  • Dr. Rosenbach and Mr. Lilly: Book Collecting in a Golden Age by Joel Silver (my review on Goodreads is simple: “I wish it was five times as long”)
  • The Rare Book Market Today by William S. Reese (Text of an address originally given at the annual meeting of the Yale Library Associates in 1999, this essay was intended to follow in the tradition established by Gordon Ray, who wrote three pieces about the American rare book market in 1965, 1974, and 1984. Draws on the author’s acquaintances among collectors, booksellers, librarians, and auctioneers)
  • Modern Book Collecting by Robert A. Wilson (updated version) or Jean Peters (original)

Nonfiction about presses and publishing

  • Publisher for the Massess, Emanuel Haldeman-Julius by R. Alton Lee (my review)
  • A World of Letters: Yale University Press, 1908-2008 by Nicholas Basbanes
  • The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read by André Schiffrin
  • Printer’s Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History by Rebecca Romney and J.P. Romney) (fun, though many dislike the frequent cursing, which is certainly uncommon in non-fiction books [at least in the ones I’ve read])

Nonfiction about presses and publishing that I do not recommend

  • The History of the Oxford University Press: Volume 1 by Harry Graham Carter (it was painful. I think it was designed to be used more as a reference book than a read-straight-through book. But I persevered, for you. Save yourself.)

Nonfiction books about the history of books

  • When Books Went to War [my short review] (about the books published specifically for US soldiers during WWII) (I now finally understand how The Great Gatsby became a thing)

Nonfiction about the history of dictionaries, thesauruses, etc.

  • The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (the madman part is actually very sad but if you endure that, you get something really wonderful. After finishing this, I looked to buy the complete OED. I then saw how much said OED costs and realized that wasn’t going to happen. The idea of collaboration among amateurs to amass knowledge did not start with Wikipedia, let’s just say that.)

 

Good fiction that is in some way about books

  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (Because there’s a non-trivial chance that you, a book lover, are also a bread lover, may I also recommend his recent book, Sourdough. It also has a librarian of sorts in it but it would be a bit of a stretch to say it’s a book about books.)
  • Ajax Penumbra 1969 by Robin Sloan (A prequel to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, I think book lovers will love this one ever more. Like my experience of Hogwarts, as I was reading this I kept thinking, “list all the things you would give up in order for this to happen to you.”)
  • The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morlely (The plot is, well, not great. But! If you love the idea of reading the musings of a used bookseller and bibliophile, it’s totally worthy it)

Helpful Websites 

  • The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA). Part of the fun of book hunting is establishing relationships with other bibliophiles, especially dealers who specialize in your areas of interest. To find reputable dealers near you (or not — I’ve worked with dealers in other states that specialize in science fiction), check here.
  • AbeBooks, a subsidiary of Amazon, is an online marketplace that’s particularly strong in used and rare books. It has the functionality to let you specifically search for first editions, signed first editions, etc. That said, unless you know what to look for and/or know the dealer, be leery of buying collectible books online.
  • The International Online Booksellers Association (IOBA). Basically the international version of the ABAA. Lots of overlap between ABAA and IOBA membership. [h/t Vic at Tavistock Books]

Courses 

  • The Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar [website] (I am delighted to report I am now a CABS ’18 graduate. The experience was incredibly rewarding and I 100% encourage all serious bibliophiles – be you a collector like me, bookseller, or angel of the gods [i.e. librarian] – to attend. Approximately 50% of all CABS students go on full or partial scholarship so do not let a lack of funds discourage you! The binder you get on day one is worth its weight in gold rare books.)
  • The Rare Book School [website] (you can get the recommended reading list for all the classes!)

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