There were 12th-century illuminated manuscripts, hand-written and hand-painted with illustrations so bright and vivid that they could have been completed only yesterday. There were stone cuneiform tablets over 4,000 years old, first editions of Alice and Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, and-- my absolute favorite that made me positively green with envy-- a small prayer book that once belonged to Queen Elizabeth I. It even had notes in her own hand in the margins.
With the advent of ebooks and the increasing trend towards digital formats, I have been wondering lately: exactly what is the future of book collecting? In an age of digital book formats where copies are absolutely limitless and one edition can be created, multiplied and destroyed in a matter of seconds, what will become of our dusty first editions that make us feel privileged to own, or even see in person? Will there still exist editions in the book world that are both unique and difficult to obtain? And finally, should we even care, as long as the written word is universally accessible to as many people as possible? Should there even exist certain editions of books that only a few privileged people/institutions are lucky enough to own? Or is the democratization of books a trend that supersedes the singularity and particular qualities that make certain books unique and irreplaceable?
I actually had some difficulty finding anything on the WWW about this issue of the proliferation of ebooks and its impact on physical book collecting. I did find one interesting blog post, titled 100 Years Ago; Or, The Future of Book Collecting-- I am not sure of the author, but his blog can be found at A New Look at Old Books. The post gives some interesting opinions about where book collecting is headed, given the trends toward book-digitizing:
- "Now, for the first time ever, the book itself is under threat. Over the next ten years the public will be asked to choose which we want, carbon or silicon, paper or screens."
- "Book collecting will only survive if new collectors take it up and they will only do that if they have some sort of relationship with books."
- "When there’s nobody left to appreciate a binding or care about condition or pay extra for a first edition then our books will become worthless clutter like shellac 78s and worn out clothes."
I really only have one "treasure" in my own personal library at home-- and I cherish it as one of my most prized possessions. It is a 1929 edition of Edgar Allen Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination, illustrated by Harry Clarke. The book is in almost perfect condition and still has all of its color plates intact. (Note: the picture to the right is not my own copy, but it is an image of the same edition.) My grandma picked it up years ago at a used book sale for $0.25. Today this book is worth over $400 in good condition. I coincidentally caught an episode of the Antiques Roadshow that had my book showcased one evening, and to my utter surprise and delight, I found out just how valuable my edition was!
I don't think that any ebook could take away the inherent value of the physical book. Isn't there just something inexplicable about having a rare edition that is hard to find and expensive to acquire? And isn't there something to cherish and love in that old dog-eared, beat-up copy of your favorite book that you've taken with you everywhere and read over and over again countless times?
Ebooks are great and they have a definite place in today's market and today's society, but for me personally, nothing will ever replace The Book in its physical form. It is completely irreplaceable and has an inherent value that can not be supplanted by digitization. For this reason, I really don't know what the future of book collecting will look like, but I think it will be a very long time before physical books are completely replaced by ebooks, or digital copies take the place of physical ones in the heart of the book lover. Maybe that's a sentimental viewpoint that holds little weight in the face of huge publishing companies out to make a profit, but I think it's fair to say that plenty of people still can and do appreciate the unique qualities of a rare book. I can only hope that somehow, some way, future generations will still be able to see their worth as well.