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 short reading lists for books about: books, how fiction has been written, the history of books, libraries, publishing, presses, transmission of knowledge, dictionaries, and reading. As I say at the bottom, for endless reading recommendations for those who have a much deeper understanding of many of these topics, check out the recommended reading lists attached to each of the courses offered by the Rare Book School at UVA. And, if you want to get into a lot more trouble, head over to Oak Knoll Press and say goodbye to all your money.
But first, a favorite comic:
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
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. 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 books about presses and publishing
- Publisher for the Massess, Emanuel Haldeman-Julius by R. Alton Lee (Haldeman-Julius was a fascinating figure in the history of publishing and the transmission of knowledge in the United States. This book, though, has a surprising number of editing mistakes.)
- Penguin and the Lane Brothers: The Untold Story of a Publishing Revolution by Stuart Kells
- Penguin by Design: A Cover Story 1935-2005 by Phil Baines
- A World of Letters: Yale University Press, 1908-2008 by Nicholas Basbanes
- Harvard University Press: A History by Max Hall
- A Short History of Cambridge University Press by Michael Black
- The History of Oxford University Press (3 volume set) (written by almost fifty contributors) (at $440, it is on my wishlist)
- The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read by André Schiffrin
- The Only Efficient Instrument: American Women Writers & The Periodical by Aleta Feinsod Cane and Susan Alves (on how women writers in the nineteenth century used newspaper and magazine writing to effect social change)
- 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])
- A Publishing History of a Prohibited Best-Seller: The Abbé de Vertot and his Histoire de Malte by Robert Thake
- From the Penny Dreadful to the Ha-Penny Dreadfuller: A Bibliographic History of the Boys’ Periodical in Britain, 1762-1950 by Robert J. Kirkpatrick (just got this pricey tome for Christmas!)
Nonfiction books 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 on printing
- Scribes and Illuminators by Christopher de Hamel
- The British Library Guide to Printing: History and Techniques by Michael Twyman
- The Colonial American Craftsmen series by Leonard Everett Fisher has a book on The Papermakers and on The Printers.
Nonfiction books about the history of books
- Books as History: The Importance of Books Beyond Their Texts by David Pearson
Nonfiction books on the history of reading, literature culture, learning, etc.
- Self Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom by Heather Andrea Williams
- Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies by Elizabeth McHenry
- American Literature in the Colonial and National Periods by Lorenzo Sears
- American Higher Education Since World War II: A History by Roger L. Geiger
- The History of the Limited Editions Club by Carol Porter Grossman (beautifully printed to boot)
- On Oprah’s Book Club I have two. Reading Oprah: How Oprah’s Book Club Changed the Way America Reads by Cecilia Konchar Farr (just ok but beggars can’t be choosers and there has been shockingly little written on this) and Reading with Oprah: The Book Club that Changed America by Kathleen Rooney (on my to-read list).
- When Books Went to War (about the books published specifically for US soldiers during WWII) (I now finally understand how The Great Gatsby became a thing)
- A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel (Manguel has written several books on this and related topics)
- The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells
- Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library by Wayne A. Wiegand
- Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles
- BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google by John Palfrey
Nonfiction books on the history of the dust jacket
- Book-Jackets: Their History, Form, and Use by G. Thomas Tanselle
- The Illustrated Dust Jacket, 1920-1970 by Martin Salisbury
- Classic Penguin: Cover to Cover edited and introduced by Paul Buckley
- Book Cover Designs by Matthew Goodman (modern)
Nonfiction books on the history of fiction writing
- When Novels Were Books by Jordan Alexander Stein (forthcoming 2020) (
- The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning by Deidre Shauna Lynch
- Literary Byways by William Andrews (published in 1898, includes 21 essays on various aspects of literature, including a few on poet [and first American philosopher] Anne Bradstreet)
Nonfiction book on reviewing books
- Inside the Critics’ Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times by Phillipa K. Chong (currently writing a review on this)
Nonfiction books 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.)
- The Dictionary Wars: The American Fight over the English Language by Peter Martin
- A is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States by Jill Lepore
- The Politics of American English 1776-1850 by David Simpson
- Noah Webster: National Language and Cultural History in the United States of America, 1758-1843 by Luisanna Fodde Melis
- The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture by Joshua Kendall
- Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper
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)
- Oak Knoll Press. Has the world’s largest inventory of books about books and bibliography. Tons and tons of amazing titles on any and everything you could possibly imagine.
- 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]
- The Rare Book School [website] (you can get the recommended reading list for all the classes!)
- 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