Old Books and New Technology

Like most academics I have an extensive library that reflects an intellectual journey and a range of sometimes (to others) bewildering interests.  That is in turn reinforced by memories and records of great libraries and archives around the world as part of a search for information and understanding amidst all those interests.  The “historian’s moment”, when a trove of information is unearthed or a major insight encountered, drives continuing investigations in all those sites and the consuming wish to find even more of them.

Amidst the jumble on my shelfs a few markers point to this search.  Few other people might prize a signed first edition of Gordon Mackenzie’s’ A Manual of the Kistna District in the Presidency of Madras, but that captures my long term interest in India and an on-going one in what is now Andhra Pradesh in southern India.  (http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=6558451656&searchurl=an%3Dbrian%2Bstoddart%26kn%3Dandhra%26sts%3Dt%26x%3D38%26y%3D12 ).  It also sparked a fascination for the lives of all the ICS officers and their families who went “out” to India as part of the imperial mission and led to the book displayed at the top of this blogpage..  There is a further Indian link in K.S. Ranjitsinjhi’s Jubilee Book of Cricket.  That was a blatant attempt by the always financially stretched imperial/colonial cricket star to cash in on Queen Victoria’s jubilee, in much the same way others are now doing currently for her successor.  Ranji also helped switch my interests into the history of cricket, and a treasure there is a rare copy of Bruce Hamilton’s Cricket in Barbados which was one of the few sources of information on that island’s storied cricket history.  W.G. Grace’s Cricket and W.G.: Cricket Reminiscences and Personal Recollections were given to me by an old friend whose husband was a lifelong Surrey man.  A dog-eared copy of Jack London’s White Fang is in there somewhere, mainly because it appears to have been signed in pencil by his second wife, Charmian Kittredge.

Some real questions emerge about this habit with the rise of the e-book and the surging sales of e-readers.  In part it is cost.  As mainline publishers and the equally surging numbers of independent producers (formerly referred to as “vanity” publishing – that is, authors who paid to have their books appear) are realising, the e-sphere is price sensitive, so it is now common to see significant price differences between the paper and electronic versions of the same book.  For independents, the profit sharing practices of outfits like Kindle are a serious lure: sell enough books at, say, $2.99 to pick up a 70% royalty and you are doing just fine, thank you, and many are.

The more serious question for some, though, is about that library.  What do you do if you have all the Ian Rankin, Andrea Camilleri, and Donna Leon works (to pick some at random) in neat rows to this point, but have the later ones on Kindle?  Do you buy the paper version to complete the set, or is that just an outdated social practice?  At heart here is the doomsday argument about the supposed “death of the book” at the hands of the new technology.

Well, it is heartening to know that the new technology is also delivering strong connections to that past practice and perhaps even helping to revive it.  One avenue is the on-line auction.  Devotees have a couple of major options now at the UK-based  www.the-saleroom.com and the American-based www.liveauctioneers.com .  These offer the chance to bid live or leave absentee bids on a bewildering array of auctions around the world, including books, and as security measures and quality assurance regimes on the items in question improve, the uptake is significant as those caught by the collecting bug in turn catch on to this new panorama.

A recent book sale (for which read antiquarian book auction) demonstrated that the alleged death of the book might be, as some have noted, premature. (http://www.tennants.co.uk/Catalogue/Sales/217.aspx).  There were some serious gems available, along with some results to would give heart to the old-time book lover.

A copy of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night with Heath Robinson illustrations was expected to fetch £70-100 but sold for £380.  A 1931 edition of Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler illustrated by the wonderful Arthur Rackham went for £320 over an estimate of £100-200.  An 1854 first edition of Dickens’ Hard Times soared over an estimated £100-150 to reach £650.  An 1898 set of Jane Austen’s works sold for £300, well above the estimate. Echoing Ranjitsinjhi a century on, a lot of “Royal ephemera” went out the door at £340, another indicator of how important that family is to Britain in commerce and tourism.  A magnificent deluxe first edition of A.A. Milne’s timeless Winnie The Pooh sold for £250.

There were some failures, though.  An 1834 set of 48 volumes of the Waverley novels failed to sell.  Perhaps Sir Walter Scott – who sentenced one of my Selkirk forbears to a year in prison for protesting against fishing rights convictions before heading back to his study at Abbotsford – is now out of favour?  The book are much talked about and little read, it might be said, but maybe the condition of this set had something to do with it.

The old Sheriff of Selkirk aside, that online auction shows that the book and library tradition is still very much alive, running in parallel to the escalating e-revolution.  That might just point to a serious future for “serious”  quality publishing alongside an e-based trade market so that readers and collectors alike have an assured future.

3 Responses to “Old Books and New Technology”
  1. Lynne McDonald says:

    One problem is that most of the books you mention are precious or rare early editions. As long as there are collectors collecting, they will sell. The situation is similar to that of a dying language. It is all very well having something you trot out on special occasions – it is what is being spoken/read in the bedroom, the bathroom, and the kitchen that counts.

    • Hi Lynn, thanks for that. A good point, that leads to a much wider other one: the e-version spread is dependent on technology. That springs the question of who has access and under what conditions. That is, the Potter sensation was said to have widened reader habits in younger kids. Now the new inspiration might be only among those with e-access

      • Lynne McDonald says:

        Print books and libraries are not yet dead. Thank goodness. That’s where much of the initial Potter reading happened. In our library anyway. Unfortunately, I don’t think we got the first edition of the first one – several libraries later managed to cash in on that one.

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