Often people visiting our gallery are terrified of touching the books, thinking that any human fingers trespassing the pages will diminish the value (or that they may spontaneously drop them). In fact, books are quite sturdy (though you should not throw them on the floor). For the most part, normal handling won’t hurt them. Want to know what really hurts books? Here’s a Top 5 list:
5. Lending them.
Any bibliophile who has lent out a book knows why this is a problem. First of all, you’ll be lucky to receive the book back at all. But more importantly, your average friend does not know how to handle a book. If it is miraculously returned, you can expect the spine to be bent, the dust jacket to be torn, etc. etc. And no, I’m not advocating you be an insufferable book lender who declares the laws of book handling before graciously allowing a friend to touch a book (unless it’s a valuable rare book—then go ahead and be insufferable). Take the famous advice of book collectors: one needs three copies of a book. One to collect, one to read, and one to lend.
4. Pulling the book down by the head of the spine.
The part of the book where the front and back cover meet, the part that shows when a book is on a shelf, is called the spine. The top of the spine is called the head. Such a wonderful little tab, there to help you pull down the book. Do not be lulled by its charms! The head is extremely weak, and will flake or break off if consistently used to pull the book down. Now the book needs repair, which costs money and hurts the value of the book, or does not receive repair and instead has an obvious, completely avoidable condition defect. Instead, pull the book down either from the back, keeping your finger against the paper of the text block, or else grab the book from around its center, with your fingers on either side. Safety first.
3. Exposing them to constant sunlight.
Just as exposure to sunlight changes the tone of one’s skin, it also changes the color of a book. The damage from UV rays is one of the most common condition problems I’ve encountered among otherwise beautifully preserved rare books. This is easy to avoid: simply do not place your books on a shelf that directly faces sunlight. In some cases, this basic principle will preserve a book’s value by tens of thousands of dollars. I’m thinking of the notorious red band on the spine of the dust jacket of The Sound and the Fury, which is almost always found faded because of sunlight. If you have a pristine copy without fading, you’re looking at the difference between a $30,000 book and an $80,000 book.
2. Allowing the front cover to flop over to the left when opening and reading the book.
There are two major weaknesses of a book’s design: the head of the spine, covered in point (4); and the joints where the spine meets the covers. In opening the book, the cover pivots at an angle controlled by the joint. Some joints are very secure and these books can be difficult to open; others are less so. But that joint is sensitive! Try to avoid ever opening a book more than 90 degrees (and even less for some books). At all costs, avoid stressing the joint by lazily knocking the cover off to the left, bent at more than a 180 degree angle and supported by the table underneath. (Avoid energetically knocking the cover to the left, as well.) These joints can loosen from such wear, which may require strengthening, or a rebacking, or an entire rebind. All of which hurt the value of your book.
1. Throwing away the dust jacket.
Collectors can be an eccentric and entertaining lot. They can also be picky. And the value of a book is often greatly determined by its desirability for collectors. In modern books (say, about 1920 and after—ish) collectors want to see a dust jacket. The ideal first edition looks just as it did when it was first sold—with all the pieces intact. This can affect the value in extreme terms. For instance, the most famous of all dust jackets is the one for the first edition The Great Gatsby. We sell first editions for $4000-$7000. That’s without the incredibly scarce dust jacket. A first edition in a beautiful jacket can go as high as $300,000! I know, the dust jacket gets in the way when you read. And it’s the first line of defense in protecting the book from wear. But keep that piece of paper safe, since it will drastically change the value of your book.
These are some beginning steps in storing and handling rare books. I’ll get into more in later posts, but send me your comments so far. Which of these are you guilty of? Which did you not know about, or seemed counter intuitive?