A Discussion of Condition in Relation to Card-Game Booklets and Other Collectible Publications: Part 1

Note:  In my most recent post, I briefly introduced this topic.  Now I hope to go into it in much more detail

In this post, I will discuss the topic of “condition.”  First, a few words on “scarcity,” by way of introduction — because it is pertinent to a discussion of “condition” . . .

Michael Sadleir, in his well-known bibliography of Trollope, went to some pains to treat the topic of relative scarcity (the scarcity if this title versus the scarcity of that title, or perhaps the scarcity of one copy of a book with certain attributes, versus other copies of the book with different attributes) — as opposed to absolute scarcity.  It’s been a long time since I have looked at Sadleir.  In my earlier days of collecting, I tended to look at Sadleir as some kind of “collecting genius,” but now I am more prone to view him as a bit more ordinary than that.  But I think his discussion of “what contributes to the scarcity of a book” was ground-breaking when it first appeared, and even today is probably (I am guessing) the most important discussion of the topic.

Again, I haven’t looked at the Sadleir bibliography (Sadleir wrote other books as well) in a while, and the foregoing may not capture him very well.  But for present purposes, it is good enough.

As noted above, Sadleir made some excellent comments on why some books are scarce or rare, and others are not.  These included such things as the following:

Early books of a given author are apt to be scarcer than later books.

Books published by obscure publishers are apt to be scarcer than books of major publishers.

Books published cheaply (poor-quality materials) are apt to be scarcer than quality publications.

Books published by publishers other than the usual publisher of a given author are apt to be scarcer.

Books on an unusual subject (for that author) are apt to be scarcer.

Little books are apt to be scarcer than bigger books.

Books published in small quantity tend to be scarcer than books published in large editions.

Books published in faraway or obscure locales tend to be scarcer than books published locally or in large cities.  (A book common “here” might be very scarce over “there.”)

I think Sadleir listed some things not included above, and the above list may include one or two items that Sadleir didn’t mention.  Of course, those kinds of generalizations apply better when they are applied to one author.  I specified this in a few of the items above, but it probably applies to all of them.  There are a lot of nuances to the foregoing listing, which I am not getting into at the moment

You might say, “Gee, Tom, I’m kind of disappointed that most of what you have said seems kind of off-the-cuff.  But additionally, I wonder what all of this has to do with condition.”

Well — and I’m probably not the only person to have thought about this — the same kinds of concepts can be developed when looking at the topic of condition.  And when you think about condition in an organized way, you can better figure out whether a certain copy of a certain title in certain condition is worth your time and money.

Now, some of these concepts are kind of obvious.  You will often see the generalization that children’s books tend to be found in worse condition than books for adults, because children tend to draw in their books, treat them roughly, and read them again and again.

You will also see or hear, with regard to Professor Hoffmann’s Modern Magic, that the first edition is seldom found in decent condition, because it became a work book, referred to often.  (I’m not sure where I have seen this, but I think I have seen it in a couple of places.)

Problem is, those kinds of generalizations often turn out to be — largely invalid.  In our book on Professor Hoffmann, J.B. Findlay and I basically indicated that Hoffmann’s card-game booklets were hard to find, essentially because they were mainly the trivial ride-alongs with card-game sets, and I think we figured they would be easily lost, and those that remained would have ben referred-to often (and would hence be in poorish condition).

And the seldomness of their appearance on the market (this was in the 1970s) tended to validate these suppositions.

In reality, I would conclude that the card-game booklets are rather common.  Some — many — are extremely rare and essentially impossible to find.  But some are quite common, and overall, during recent years, it has not ben too difficult to assemble a good collection of them.  (However, my impression is that this is changing, or has changed.  There are floating around still tons of examples of Bezique and of Selected Patience Games.  But some of the titles are never seen, and I do think that the scarce titles tend to be seen less often.)

There are a number of possible approaches to a discussion of condition, but I think for this post I’ll just discuss a few subtopics, instead of attempting to present a detailed analysis of the entire area.

First, as to card-game booklets, the general rule is that they are often found in fabulous condition.  Probably they are more frequently found in somewhat questionable condition.  But frequently the condition is far better than one might expect.  I think that the reasons for this are as follows:

1.  Often the booklets are tucked away inside a game set, often in a little sheath — protected.

2.  Often, the booklets were seldom, if ever, referred to.  I think in many cases, people in possession of a booklet already knew adequately how to play the game.

3.  The booklets are easy to preserve and protect — just toss them into a drawer and forget about them for a few decades.

4.  The booklets, to the degree that they accompanied game sets, went to all purchasers of the game set — it’s not like the buyer had an alternative of buying the game without the booklet.  So, maybe half the games went to owners who would not even look at the booklet.

5.  Many of the booklets — at least those that are relatively early — are intrinsically quite nice, almost jewel-like, and I imagine that most people would think twice before throwing them away.  By the time the 1940s or so arrived, the earlier ones must have seemed quite old, and worth protecting.

Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that many of the booklets have survived.  (Maybe not many relatively speaking, but many in comparison to the number of people who are interested in collecting them.)

And a fairly good percentage of the survivors are in pretty good condition.  Just as a guess, I would estimate that maybe half of the ones that one sees for sale are actually in pretty nice condition.  Okay, maybe it’s less than that, but still it is not super unusual.

And the surprising thing is that so many are in something like “as new” condition.  Just as a wild guess, I imagine that I have thirty or so that fit that category.  Now maybe that isn’t so strange, when you might run across a game-set from the 1910s that could have two virtually untouched booklets in it.

But I probably have a half-dozen or so copies of Bridge, by Professor Hoffmann, from before 1910, that are in like-new condition.  Okay, okay, ob the ones with gilt edges, maybe the gilt is a little dull — but that doesn’t mean much.  Recently I bought a copy of Hoffmann’s Rubicon Bezique — an 1895 first edition — on eBay.  Upon first glance, it looks in pristine, untouched condition.  Yes, on close inspection, I can find a few little problems, but they are of the type that might have occurred before the booklet even left the store.

I am really trying to say this:  Since card-game booklets exist in measurable quantities, and since a reasonable proportion of them are in really nice condition, one might as well strive to collect booklets that are in great condition.  Of course, if you are interested in the bibliographical aspects of ye booklets, the condition of the booklets is not always going to be a prime consideration.

Now a question may arise as to how one can determine when a copy is in really great condition.  It is not always as easy as one might think.  I have sometimes had a copy of a book which I felt was about as good a copy as was reasonably possible to imagine.  But then I acquired another copy of the book, and it was immediately apparent that the first one wasn’t so great after all.  This might be a bit hypothetical as to specifics, but the following is a decent example.  I had a copy of Professor Hoffmann’s Card Tricks Without Sleight of Hand.  It was (and is) in very nice condition.  I was very happy with its condition — until I came across a copy of Chess for Beginners, by F. Hardy, from the same Warne series.

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Now, I probably have about ten or so examples of Warne’s Bijou Books, and the two just mentioned are probably in better condition than any of the rest of them.  The Card Tricks Without Sleight of Hand is quite nice, but it is not up to the level of the Chess for Beginners.

I hope to continue this discussion in my next post on this blog.

—Tom Sawyer

June 17, 2013, 11:10 p.m.

About 1578 words.

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