by Elżbieta Piepiórka
Value is relative. To some, Jane Austen is a genius. Others can’t comprehend why she was published. Sentimental, literary, academic values – these vary depending on our individual experiences and personalities. Yet, there are spoken and unspoken rules governing the physical value of books within the bookseller’s world. Join me for the final article in my second-hand bookshop insider series, to explore the material side of books.
To some customers, personal inscriptions on front pages add to the history and “feel” of a book – to booksellers, they usually decrease the book’s value. Conversely, if that inscription is by somebody famous – it could make that copy valued infinitely more. Marbled pages are a part of a rich book history and a marvel to behold. Yet, whilst working at a bookshop, I am commonly asked why such distasteful patterns are added or, to my horror, if they are the result of a book catching damp…
Some books are priceless even if they’re absolutely turning to dust before your eyes. Others aren’t even worth storage space, if they are slightly crinkled. Some books are worth less than if their illustrations were cut out and sold as individual prints. The procedures of second-hand book buying, cataloguing, and pricing has been intricate even before the added complications of the internet; where you can see all the world’s copies and where you have to be competitive with sellers from radically different economies and systems of cultural value. And, of course, even decreasing the price of books can be bad for business. I’ve often observed customers leaving books behind because they think that an affordable book can’t be as intellectually stimulating, well preserved, or widely revered as a new pricey hard-back.
So, is there any sense to any of this chaos? Whether or not pieces of literature can be viewed as valuable material objects, outside of their artistic value, is another debate. But is there a justifiable, somewhat unified and organized system of valuing books as objects? A good first step in rupturing this iceberg is contemplating personal sentiments when approaching modern mutants of publishing such as A Humument or The Tree of Codes. When I discussed these with my peers in an academic setting, sentiments varied widely. I personally loved A Humument for enchanting me both visually and poetically. Yet, when I imagined manipulating a book that I loved in the same way that Tom Philips reworked Mallock’s A Human Document to create A Humument, it made me irrationally angry. I saw The Humument as reviving and revaluing a weak text, yet thought it sacrilegious to alter a beloved one. If an artist coloured all over a book and tore a few pages out, I’d consider it art. If a child did it, I would, at least initially, see the book as destroyed. Whilst Western antique and second-hand booksellers have a more or less defined code for pricing books, to me, material book culture remains enigmatic largely due to the sheer amount of emotion that books inspire.