Comments from David Levy relating to “condition” and the earlier books . . .

Here is an extract from an email I received from David Levy relating to my recent posts on the topic of condition.  In my next post, I hope to extend the discussion somewhat.  I much appreciate David’s observations!

David writes:

As someone primarily interested in the 18th century, I had a couple of comments about condition. You wrote:

“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.”

It is certainly true that books from the early 1800s and before turn up in good condition. This is probably less frequent in the sorts of things you and I care about which were not bought to put on a shelf in a gentleman’s private library. Our books were heavily used! Nonetheless, I have some books from the late 17th century that are in “fine” condition as you describe.

There are two differences with the older books. First is that the books could be sold either in quires to be bound by the customer or in a publisher’s binding (or in the binding selected by the retail bookseller). Second, older books have often been rebound over the years. What I appreciate both as a collector and a bibliographer, is books in original condition. See for example this and this, even though the books are a bit curled and dusty. I much prefer these to fancy rebindings even if in superb condition, such as the books I have from the Aldenham Library. Yes, they are beautiful, but they seem unreal, even spoiled. I love the way booksellers call books in original condition as “unsophisticated.”

It’s also very funny that your comfort begins with 1860. Mine ends with 1820 or so—the era of machine-produced books!

(End of David’s remarks.)

—Tom Sawyer

June 23, 2013

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