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 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 presses and publishing

  • 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

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 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.”

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.

Courses 

  • The Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar [website] (It seems to me that this is the thing to go to)
  • The Rare Book School [website] (you can get the recommended reading list for all the classes!)

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