Books Every Book Collector Should Read

Our upcoming Autographs auction features an uncommon Oscar Wilde manuscript consisting of five and a half pages of his notes for a review in which he pans a book on book collecting. While Wilde might not have been a fan of that book in particular, there are certainly quite a few books on collecting that we love here at Swann. Many of these were included in Rich Rennick‘s blog post for the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America titled 10 Books Every Book Collector Should Read. You can find the top five here, and make sure to check out Rich’s full post over at ABAA for the complete list. 


Like any field of endeavor, the rare book trade has its quirks and rituals, its habits and history, its jargon and secrets. Unlike some other trades, book dealers have never been afraid to commit their secrets, memories, and insights to paper. There are many, many fascinating and educational books detailing the inner workings of the rare book trade. We polled some dealers and collectors and arrived at this list of the top ten books every book collector should read.


Let’s start with the more educational books:


1. ABC for Book Collectors by John Carter

The classic reference work on book terminology. First published in 1952, the current edition (the 8th) has been updated to include newer jargon and terms spawned by the internet. With subtle wit and humor, first John Carter and now Nicholas Barker unpeel the layers of meaning from phrases that — although once more common – now appear terribly obscure outside of rare book circles.

In a field where it’s essential that buyers and sellers understand what they’re talking about, ABC for Book Collectors is an excellent guide to our common language.

After one learns the jargon used in the used book trade, the next thing one needs is a guide to spotting which copy is of value and which merely interesting. While an acquaintance with an experienced rare book dealer is the best way to access this information, there are several good books that ABAA members and serious collectors keep on hand for constant reference.



2. Collected Books: The Guide to Values by Allen and Patricia Ahearn

Written by ABAA members Allen and Patricia Ahearn of Quill and Brush, Collected Books: The Guide to Values contains information on some of the most widely collected books, provides notes on discerning one edition from another, and guidelines on typical prices for collectible copies. Noted book collector and rare book expert Nicholas Basbanes (about whom more below) declared “If any single item can be considered essential equipment for today’s book collector, it is Collected Books …this richly informative reference volume offers authoritative guidance for every manner of bibliophile, from beginning bookhunters to hard-core veterans…”



3. First Editions: A Guide to Identification by Edward Zempel and Linda Verkler

As every publisher seems to use slightly different means to identify their first editions, a reference book that collects and comments on these practices is vital.

ABAA member John Schulman of Caliban Books singles out Edward Zempel and Linda Verkler’s First Editions: A Guide to Identification, commenting that “Professional booksellers keep this on hand for reference, as there are simply too many publishers and too many different notations to keep straight otherwise.”


One final identification guide worth pointing out is:





4. A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions by Bill McBride

The great virtue of this book is its small size. You really can carry it around in a pocket and pull it out to confirm if the book you’ve stumbled across is a modern first edition or not. Great for exploring used bookstores on vacation, yard sales, and other unexpected opportunities to acquire old books.

(Do you need more than one identification guide to modern first editions? Possibly not, but I’ve never met a book collector yet who said, “one book is enough.”)


Beyond the reference and identification guides, there are many memoirs and nonfiction books exploring the world of rare books and the mindset of the bibliophile. Perhaps no writer has made this beat his own as much as Nicholas Basbanes, author of many books on book collecting and the history of the book. We’ll pull just one of these to the fore because it’s a perfect introduction to book collecting:



5. A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books by Nicholas Basbanes

Both a “timeless classic” by a charming raconteur and a fascinating work of history for those of us who love old books, bookselling, and the quirky characters who populate the antiquarian book world, A Gentle Madness “captures that last moment in time when collectors pursued their passions in dusty bookshops and street stalls, high-stakes auctions, and the subterfuge worthy of a true bibliomaniac,” according to its publisher.

Critics and collectors agree, with Michael Dirda writing in the Washington Post that “A Gentle Madness is chock-a-block with such strange and appealing characters, each more wonderful than the last. On nearly every page Basbanes neatly profiles similar dreams, dedication, and sometimes sheer biblio-lust. Nicholas A. Basbanes has compiled a wonderful gallery of eccentrics, isolates, charmers and visionaries an ingratiating and altogether enjoyable book.”

If you’re a recent convert to serious book collecting, you need to read Basbanes to understand just what you’ve gotten yourself into. (After this, read Basbanes’ Among the Gently Mad.)



Thanks to our friends over at ABAA for letting us share this. Read the complete post here.