Twenty-Five Propositions on Book Collecting

By Bennett Gilbert
Copyright © 1996 Bennett Gilbert
Used by permission.

Fifteen Principles of the Nature of Old Books

  1. Old books are part of the history of communication and expression. 
  2. As such they are an especially powerful, complex, interesting, and beautiful part of the chain of human thought, speech, and imagery starting from cave paintings and rock art, the oldest known works of art.
  3. Old books have a further constituent virtually unique to them among antique objects: the text. Each text has its own history and material and is therefore a layer of meaning in the old book against which all its other parts resonate.
  4. To understand an old book, we have to understand the role of the author in addressing an audience, writing a text, and publishing his or her work.
  5. We have to consider why the printer printed it, why he printed it in his city or town, and why he printed in the year of its publication.
  6. We must also consider the printer's audience: who bought that book and read it and why they did so.
  7. The entire chain of provenance of the book, in so far as it may be determined, is part of the unique interest of each copy of each book, as expressed in ownership marks and study notes.
  8. The typographic design of old books is part of the way in which they persuaded their readers. It is from old books that we learn about typography and book design and can see them as technological achievements, as things of beauty, and as part of the history of art and of design.
  9. Bindings help us to know the owners and to see the book functioning as a means of communication and expression. Bookbinding is a refined decorative art, intimately related to the larger artistic movements, that expresses the place of the books in their eras. 
  10. In addition, book illustrations are especially potent forms of imagery because of the relations of text and image. Book illustration is an important part of the history of graphic art, both popular and refined. They enhance the psychological and intellectual power of the book as well as its visual appeal.
  11. These are the factors that give to every old book its presence, like a personality or an aura, and make it an image of the mind and of the soul.
  12. Each old book expresses in its many aspects the main, leading, and dominant forces, changes, and themes of its day.
  13. There was nothing more powerful in influencing those forces than the printed book. Neither painting nor any other art or craft or medium of public communication shaped history more. 
  14. Each old book is a microcosm that preserves physically, visually, textually, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually the macrocosm it mirrors. Old books are profound physical vestiges of an intellectual, social, or personal event from long ago.
  15. Because of all these features, old books are among the most expressive and articulate of collectible objects.

Five Reasons To Collect Old Books

  1. The printed book is no longer so much a tool as an object--an aesthetic, psychological, moral, intellectual, and philosophical object.
  2. Ownership of old books is worthwhile not only for information but also for the visual, textual, and iconic images with which they can fill our imaginations and minds.
  3. The assembling of old books creates a synergy among them. They resonate with one another and stimulate the minds and imaginations of those who own them, see them, or use them. Their conjunction and association will lead us in new directions of thought and historical understanding that were not contemplated when they were bought.
  4. Connoisseurship is trained intuition: instinct informed by experience and knowledge. Collecting old books enhances connoisseurship and hence leads to personal growth because understanding them requires and develops this combination of intuition and knowledge.
  5. The presence of old books, with all their many meanings and moods, enriches our lives.


Five Guidelines For Collectors 

  1. Think ahead of the pack. Let books guide you into new areas of the historical imagination or more deeply into old areas. Develop new ways of looking at the events they represent. Don't buy according to any list other than your own.
  2. Rely on a small group of dealers you trust. Let them be your professional book-buyers. Dealers know the many twists and turns of the paths along which old books are to be found, and they have a long-term interest in your satisfaction.
  3. Buy copies in original condition, whether that be fresh or used, rather than cleaned and modernized copies. Annotations, bindings, ownership marks, and the other signs of human use give the book a presence beyond its physical dimensions.
  4. Look at the book as a complete object, in all its aspects. You will make better choices if you are aware of as many of the messages old books send as possible.
  5. Develop your connoisseurship. Train your intuition through study and hands-on experience. This is the way in which book collecting will be challenging, interesting, stimulating, fun, satisfying, and enriching.


This article is Copyright © 1996 Bennett Gilbert. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the author's express written permission. 


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