A Discussion of Condition in Relation to Card-Game Booklets and Other Collectible Publications: Part 2

Note:  This is Part 2 of a two-part post.

In the preceding post, I developed the argument that if one is collecting card-game booklets, it is usually wise to try to collect them in the best possible condition.  I also indicated that sometimes it is a little difficult to determine the condition of a book, because the state of its condition may only become clear upon comparing it to a similar book that is in better, or worse, condition.

I did not really get into the topic of “why it is a good thing in general to collect things that are in great condition, as opposed to things that are not in such great condition.”  I don’t know whether I have ever seen a discussion that brings this question down to its most fundamental level.  It seems almost axiomatic:  all other things being equal, you would choose the item that is in better condition.  Collectors in all fields have that drummed into them in the very early stages of their collecting.  Catalog descriptions and pricing nearly always take condition into consideration.  I’m sure there are many nuances to this question — at the moment, though, I am not going to get into it.

I will discuss terminology a little here.  There exists no absolute scale for grading books, either as to terminology, or as to the precise meanings of the terms.  The terms one normally sees are probably as follows:

Fine

Very Good

Good

Fair

Poor

Oddly, the only one of these that really means what it says is “fine,” which to me means “mint” (which is sometimes used as a synonym).  It means “like new” — but actually many “new” books are not in fine condition.  Realistically, even a “fine” book may have a few tiny difficulties.  In theory, a book with a wonderful presentation inscription could not possibly be in fine condition, but personally, if the defects are truly minor, and I mean virtually insignificant, I would still consider the book fine.

For others, a book with the tiniest mar on the back cover, say a one-eighth-inch scratch, could be no better than “near fine.”  And in fact, most designations of condition can be qualified with terms such as “about,” or “near.”  Plus-signs and minus-signs are often used.

A book in “very good” condition is normally one that would satisfy a collector — but the drop-off between fine and very good is a rather large one (hence the typical need for qualifiers.”

Strangely, the term “good” generally means “somewhat substandard,” “with various flaws of significant concern.”  It describes a book which would normally be considered mainly a placeholder, unless it is a book that is especially hard to find.

“Fair” means “very poor,” and “poor” is even worse than that.  One also often sees the term “reading copy,” which tends to mean that it is only useful for reading.

Now, one might naturally ask, “what is the role of age in evaluating condition”?  And the reply (somewhat simplified) is:  the age of a book does not mean that a different standard is applied.  That is why it is normally not a very sound practice to say, “in good condition for its age,” “or “in good condition considering its age.”

Now I’ll make reference to a related matter in a different field.  As I have mentioned before, I have a very extensive collection of items relating to the artist Frank Godwin (1889-1959).  He illustrated countless magazine stories over a period of decades.  I have many issues of Redbook magazine from the 1930s with illustrations by Godwin.  In condition, they range from horrible to, well, fine, or at least near fine.  And listen to this:  I have a lot of them in near fine condition.  I think of this whenever someone says, “in good condition for its age.”  If anything should be excused on account of age, it is a mass-market magazine.  But some from the 1930s (and even before) exist in fine condition.

This does not mean that you should not make allowances for many things when contemplating the purchase of an item.  An item might be in fair or poor condition, and yet it might still be highly desirable and valuable.  But that does not change its condition.

As I have mentioned, I do not believe that you can assess the desirability of a book from the early nineteenth century, or before, on the same basis as books from (say) the late nineteenth-century onward.  I stress that I do not know much about the earlier books.  I start being comfortable with say, 1860 onward.  I am of the opinion that books from the early 1800s and before do turn up occasionally in great condition — but perhaps not as often as later books.

If you consider — as an example — that a lot of three-decker novels were probably issued in small editions of say 500 copies, and then if you add to that the fact that a lot of the books went into lending libraries, it can easily be seen that in many cases fine copies of old novels are going to be quite scarce.

I have not made a study of it, but my impression is that many of the old conjuring books that are around are in questionable condition.  A few years ago, a copy of the first edition of Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft was for sale — it lacked the title page.  And in other respects, the book was a disaster.  A fellow collector pointed out to me that with proper restoration, the book could be made non-embarrassing.  Of course, the lack of title page is a terrible defect.  Nonetheless, I made inquiries, to which I never received any replies!

Other old conjuring books I have seen have also been in not-that great condition.  I think that what happens may in part be along these lines.  Conjuring books is kind of a limited field, and there are a finite number of really old conjuring-books (say, pre 1800).  Institutions are interested in them, and these books (in some cases, at least) are pretty much gone from the market for good.  On the whole, those are not going to be among the worst books, either.  Now John Mulholland apparently had some nice old magic books.  And Leslie R. Cole had a large number of old books.  Those have now moved into another private library (perhaps for decades to come, or longer).  So, those books, which included probably some of the better examples of the older books, are pretty much gone from the market.

So, while there may be a large number of super-old magic books in great condition, they do not appear to come up for ale very often.  The result is that if you collect those kinds of books, you pretty much have to be prepared to collect books in worse condition.

I think it is safe to say that this malady has not yet struck books from the time of Professor Hoffmann onward.  The diligent searcher can probably still find copies of most of Hoffmann’s books in great condition (for a price), so there is generally not too much reason to settle for merely “good” copies.

You may be saying, “Tom, why are you talking about conjuring books, and about Professor Hoffmann?  After all, those topics are not too closely connected with card-game booklets.”  True, they are not closely connected — but they are somewhat related, and besides, I tend to know a little more about those topics than I do about books on plumbing.

Now I will say a few words about why I felt it necessary to discuss this whole topic in the first place.  Boiled down, I am getting a little tired of seeing poorish books offered for sale as though there are no drawbacks for the buyer.  I also have noticed how much more satisfying it is to look upon books in really nice condition.  And as I have looked at a few of my books, I have come to understand better how easy it is to become deluded into thinking that a book is in nice condition.  Lately I have acquired some more examples of Every Boy’s Annual, and this point struck me rather forcibly, when thinking about the differences in condition among them.

I think that is all for the moment!

—Tom Sawyer

June 18, 2013

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