The Delirious, Addictive Hunt for Rare Books

Rebecca Rego Barry, ‘Rare Books Uncovered’

old books
Wikimedia Commons
January 17, 2016

"These things are cultural debris," a friend of Russell Kirk’s once said to him in regard to unwanted, rare classical books. "It’s as if a great ship had sunk, but a few trifles of flotsam had bobbed up from the hulk and were drifting on the surface of the ocean. Who wants this sea-drift? Not the sharks. You and I are going about in a small boat collecting bits of debris."

Rebecca Rego Barry, the author of Rare Books Uncovered, is one of these seafarers—or, a "scout," as they are called in the rare book trade. Her colorful collection of stories profiles an array of bibliophiles, some professional, others amateur, and many accidental. While detailing dozens of serendipitous discoveries, Barry teaches readers the two ingredients necessary for scouting: what she calls wisdom, or technical knowledge; and luck.

 Barry takes a confident approach to her trade, asserting that "anything can be anywhere." Take, for example, the story of book collector Kurt Zimmerman, who nearly hyperventilated when he was presented with dozens of books annotated by Mark Twain. The collection was in near-perfect condition after having been stored in barrels in San Diego, California. Zimmerman’s find of this marginalia was all the more exhilarating because Twain was, of course, known for his witticisms—though the private Twain is not always as incisive as was the public article. In the copy of John Dryden’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives included in this cache, for example, Twain wrote that the work had been translated "into rotten English … by an ass."

There are dozens of other stories no less entertaining: a copy of the Declaration of Independence wedged in a stack of newspapers from 1778, a Salvador Dali-illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland for sale in the Sun-Times classifieds section, or a 17th century catechism hidden inside the binding of another tome, Historia Veneta.

Barry illustrates how collectors are as diverse as the books that they pursue. Some refuse to use the Internet, instead seeking their treasures in person and relying on long-accumulated insider knowledge. Others have stumbled upon their most desired finds on eBay—like George Koppelman, who in 2008 claimed to have found a quadruple dictionary annotated by Shakespeare himself on the online auction website. And whether a collector is an old-school book sale goer or an online lurker, hunting successfully for rare books requires patience, research, and the accumulation of detailed knowledge. A tattered leather-bound book could reveal itself to be a first edition worth tremendous amounts of money: for example, "in the first edition of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities," Barry writes, "page 213 is mis-paginated as page 113."

One especially lovely term Barry lingers on, during the course her many lovely explanations of the details of the trade, is "ephemera"—the various photographs, ticket stubs, and bookmarks that readers forget between their pages. Some collectors devote their search entirely to these mementos, like Michael Popek, who wrote a cookbook filled with the recipes he found inside of old volumes. These marks of nostalgia, whether inscriptions or even lipstick blots, illustrate "the power of the book as an object," as compared to a one-size-fits-all eBook. Barry shows that for serious collectors, getting to know a book is like getting to know a person, with all of the attendant quirks and mysteries that the analogy implies.

Kirk’s friend referred to his collection of Cicero and Seneca as "cultural debris" because, even before the dawn of the e-reader, the public was not much interested in buying old books. "Who wants classical texts? No twentieth-century Faustus disposes of his immortal soul for mere abstract knowledge," Kirk wrote. Barry’s delightful stories will give the bibliophiles hope.

Published under: Book reviews