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Books About Books
Tomes for bibliomaniacs leave no page unturned


When I was in college I used to haunt used book shops. I liked having vintage hardcovers of my favorites, and new bookstores usually only had paperbacks unless the book was published last week. And many books weren't even available in paperback because they had gone "out of print." I really didn't know anything about books, but I found used book shops to be wonderful places full of serendipitous discoveries waiting to happen.

Over the years I became more and more fascinated by the world of books and bookselling, and began to look for (what else!) books on the subject. By this time I had an ambition to be a bookseller myself. With a little hunting I have since found and read several "books about books," and I thought I'd share a few of my favorites.

John Dunning, a Denver book dealer himself, wrote a really fun mystery called "Booked to Die." It has an interesting plot, is well written, and contains a lot of tantalizing information about the world of collectable books. Appropriately enough, this book itself is now quite collectable, fetching around $700 for a nice first printing even though it is only a few years old.

"A Gentle Madness," by Nicholas Basbanes is a wonderful history of obsessive book collecting. It opens 2,200 years ago at the library in Alexandria, which attempted to gather all the world's knowledge at that time under one roof. Basbanes then proceeds through history to the present day, giving profiles of famous collectors, their strange habits of collecting, and the often monumental libraries they gathered. Obsessive book collecting remains the only hobby to have a disease-bibliomania-named after it.

A good view of the transition of "normal" people into book collectors appears in "Used and Rare," by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone. Mrs. Goldstone sets out one day to find a nice hardcover copy of "War and Peace" for her husband's birthday. She is astonished to discover that something so seemingly simple is in fact, not. Her quest ultimately leads to her discovery of the wonderful world of used book shops, and she and Mr. Goldstone gradually become confirmed bibliomaniacs. This confirms my belief that there is a book collector inside most any avid reader.

One of the best one-volume references on collectable books is aptly titled "Collected Books: the Guide to Values," by fellow Marylanders Allen and Patricia Ahearn. The current edition contains information and estimated market values for over 20,000 books. There is a helpful section on identifying first printings by the more commonly encountered publishers. It is a great general guide, covering literature, history, Americana, children's books, mystery and science fiction, and more. The prices tend to be a bit optimistic.

Speaking of identifying first printings, there are two primary guides commonly in use by book dealers. The first is "First Editions: a Guide to Identification," by Edward N. Zempel and Linda A. Verkler. This guide is composed of statements gathered from publishers as to how they designate first printings. There are over 3,000 publishers included and the statements date from 1928 with revisions all the way up to 1995. One would assume that this guide provides the most definitive answers regarding first printings, given that the information comes from the publishers themselves. The only problem is that publishers didn't always know their own methods, and didn't always follow them consistently.

Another guide, and one I often find preferable, is "A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions," by Bill McBride. The difference between this and Zempel and Verkler's is that it is based on observations of what publishers actually did as opposed to their own statements of what they intended to do. It also truly is a "pocket" guide, and is therefore much more useful where you really need it-when you are out buying books. Both of these guides really belong in the references of any collector or dealer of first printings.

Ian Ellis wrote a good book on book scouting called "Book Finds: How to Find, Buy, and Sell Used and Rare Books." It provides many excellent tips on buying books with an eye toward their potential value. And it is not old, dusty, musty, tomes he discusses either. Most of the information is about modern books.

Probably my favorite book about books is Charles Everitt's "The Adventures of a Treasure Hunter: A Rare Bookman in Search of American History." Charlie Everitt was a curmudgeonly dealer in Americana books during the first half of the 20th century. His book is full of rare book lore and colorful stories of great finds. He writes in a tremendously readable style, and this book is sure to fire the imagination of anyone with even an ounce of bibliomania in their system. Everitt was a character, in the true sense of the word.

So there are some of the books about books which I like best. I hope you will seek out any that interest you as well.

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