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Beginner’s guide to book collecting, and some personal anecdotes

To me, “book collecting” is a high-sounding phrase that describes what most book lovers naturally do anyway – hoard. Book collectors are, in essence, hoarders, and book collecting is a nice-sounding euphemism for book hoarding.

So, most book hoarders are already book collectors, whether they know it or not. And the surest way to tell you’re a collector is when your family starts complaining that your books are taking up too much space and nagging you to give/sell/throw away some of your books. Which makes you defensive and indignant, or resentful, or bitter, or baffled, or hateful, or misunderstood, or self-pitying. And you respond to them saying they might as well cut off your arm, or that they don’t care about your happiness, or at least, that your books are worth a million times more than the stupid bags, shoes, electronics items, or kitchen utensils they like to hoard, which will break down/go out of fashion two years from now.

For people who love books (be it to read, or to look at, or just the idea of books), collecting comes naturally. Book collecting doesn’t refer exclusively to rare, special or antiquarian books, but any genre of your choice. In fact, many famous book collectors in the early 20th century purchased $1 books, which became very valuable over the course of the century because they happened to be 1st editions or out-of-print titles. And so, their $1 books eventually became valued at $1,000 or $5,000 or even more than that. Having said that, you shouldn’t purchase a book as an investment, because it’s unpredictable, risky and frowned upon by bookseller’s associations around the world. It’s also likely that your $1 book will remain $1.

Most collectors start by purchasing many, many books by their favourite author, or of a particular genre. As a child, I used to hoard Enid Blyton books, and later moved on to an obsession with David Edding’s The Belgariad and The Mallorean (the David Eddings phase was quelled when I attempted the lousy Sparhawk series). Even now, reading The Belgariad or The Mallorean fills me with a sense of nostalgia. (Not Enid Blyton though, not after I discovered she was racist.)

Then I went through a King Arthur phase, where I searched the entire island (no Amazon then) for any book on King Arthur, fiction or non-fiction. And I also loved the abridged, illustrated versions of the classics, my favourite being the early sci-fi books by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. My parents, realising how much I loved books, attempted to satisfy me with an encyclopedia set – but I’ve never met any book lover who wants an encyclopedia, unless it’s really obscure or special. Funk & Wagnalls/Brittanica isn’t really for book lovers – it’s for people who think having an encyclopedia set looks good in their homes or might encourage literacy within the family.

And so this is how book collecting begins. But it starts getting serious when you discover one of the following:

1. Your books start developing spots, or the pages get tanned, and you find this unacceptable. So you start collecting hardcover books with acid free paper, or old books with pages made of vegetable fibre that doesn’t spoil so easily, etc, etc.

2. It’s not worth getting a paperback version of a book when you can get a hardcover or a much, much more beautiful edition for just a little bit more money.

3. You would rather get a rare copy of a classic because reprints start feeling somewhat inauthentic, although this feeling might be completely irrational.

4. The bookshops around don’t have anything you want that you don’t already own.

5. You’ve developed an interest in a very, very obscure topic and you’re full of questions about it. And the answers can only be found in books printed before the year 1800 in Latin. You can’t even find anything about it on the internet. (I’m not exaggerating. A case in point: you love science and want to read the works of Isaac Newton. Then you discover that most of his work was on alchemy, not science per se. But his alchemical writings are impossible to find. What to do?)

6. Your favourite author wrote a number of books before he became famous, and very few copies of those were printed.

The list goes on, but you get the gist. And this is why Ebooks cannot satisfy book hoarders – there is no satisfaction in hoarding things that you can’t really look at, and collecting something that takes up only disk space isn’t quite the same. After all, looking at a house filled with books can make you happy despite the clutter, but looking at one small screen saying you’re running out of gigabytes just makes you irritable.