Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Old book donations

At the library I work at we get a lot of book donations. They are piled up in something awfully close to a heap, near a dark, windowless room where they are sorted and sold by The Friends of the Library, a semi-autonomous group working allegedly to our benefit. While value is regularly extracted from these books it tends to be in volume, a dollar or two at a time. It turns out one doesn't have to be a brilliant business person to make a go of a business where one's staff is free, one's stock is free, and one's well-trafficked retail space is also free.

In all my years of watching such a variety of books come through I have learned that when people talk about "rare" books they really mean "rare" in all the richness and exclusivity of the word. I have looked into the value of donations, both idly and officially, and when it comes to the value of books, well, they aren't. And if a stray book looks like it might be super valuable there invariably tends to be a mitigating issue, like condition, or some nuanced thing that qualifies its rarity. Rare is a word with actual meaning here, and it doesn't mean one in a hundred. It means one is as likely to come across a nice signed first edition of, say, The Big Sleep as one is likely to come across a small briefcase of gold coins. This is exactly why both are worth $25,000 or so.

Although I suppose one would have an easier time selling the gold coins.

But all this doesn't mean the books we get aren't interesting. They are. They are packed with historical and cultural information. They're sometimes strange and fun to look at. They make one think about things. Awhile ago we got a guidebook to Los Angeles from about 1910. I didn't even know such a thing as traveling for fun to L.A. would be relevant in that time frame, and yet it looked interesting enough, albeit provincial, even if there weren't any Getty museums or movie star houses to visit yet. I was alarmingly struck too by how the increasingly ancient time of that guidebook is actually closer (barely) to the time of my birth in that city than it is to the present time.

A book I came across yesterday was the mundane guide How to Build Modern Furniture. Since the book was 70 or 80 years old it cast the up-to-date appellation of "modern" into a dubious, slightly comical light. Everything from tools to available materials to changed tastes casts such a book into so extreme a niche that, coupled with it's mediocre quality, modest initial success, and faded musty looks, it may have now something close to zero prospective readers. Similarly one might find travelling to Los Angeles with that 109 year old guidebook could present some insurmountable challenges. These, and their smell, easily explains their ultimate dollar price tags, as rare in their own right as they might be. 

The most recent book I looked at among the donations was one heralding the best political cartoons of the year. The year was sometime around 1990. Yes, I was around then and politically aware. Yes, I remember Dick Gephardt. But that doesn't mean I "got" even a quarter of those cartoons.

And that says it all to me: History is not that different from the present. Some of it is of incalculable value, but most of it it is mere idle curiosity, with no more value than what we can give to it with what will and heart we have.

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