Choosing Books for One’s Library

By Tony Weller

Beginning in my teens I believed that a person should have a library. I was fortunate to be surrounded by avid readers who helped me discover worthy books. The stories and ideas in my books excited me. Early in my college years, I discovered the meta-fictional tales in Robert Coover’s 1969 collection, Pricksongs and Descants, and they delighted me. One day I stopped into a new Salt Lake City bookstore, Scaliwagiana’s, later, Scaliwags, run by the late Kent Walgren, who became my friend. There I discovered an attractive and affordable 1st edition of Pricksongs—I bought it and it became my first recognized experience of collector’s joy. Then began my desire to own great copies of books I admired. That was about 40 years ago. Listening to good readers—friends, colleagues and customers—my library grew past its practical limit (I like to see them all) possibly 20 years ago. That is another, more complicated story.

Bibliophiles and collectors know that different editions and copies of books provide different utility and pleasure. When choosing a well-known book, one that has been around for at least a few years, you might have several choices. With newly published books, one must accept what is offered and the idea of comparing traits is likely moot. Books that achieve popularity or impact will be reprinted, and that is when the readers’ choices may multiply. When choosing a classic work without copyright restrictions, options may multiply rapidly, sometimes with mind-boggling numbers. Who knows how many Bibles are published each year?

There are many ways we select our books, possibly too many, and since I cannot yet fathom your soul, I will proceed with a complex example with which I struggled a few years ago. Today, I do not own a nice edition of Paradise Lost by John Milton. I read about half of the copy I chose before glancing up at a calendar and realizing my life was too short for the rest. Before beginning to read, I needed to choose a copy and was then fortunate to have three great ones in our bookstore from which to choose. I fancy fancy books, but without “good” content I do not care. Editions of a title may have the same words or pictures, yet affect us differently.  Usually I can select books without struggle but the John Milton choice was complex and required a matrix. Here are the ten traits I compared to choose:

  1. Format. Size. One was quarto (4to); one octavo (8vo); one sextodecimo (16mo). I prefer the ergonomic “handy” small 8vo or duodecimo (12mo).
  2. Font size. This is important to me because books are meant to be read and I read my valuable books to get maximum pleasure from owning them. Very carefully. Font size matters because I do not care to struggle seeing small type. No level of cuteness can overcome utility for me. In the same spirit, narrow gutter margins will dissuade me from choosing a book.
  3. Presence of additional material. All three editions had introductory or critical essays and brief biographies of Milton. One had an introduction by Samuel Johnson.
  4. Draping is the term used to describe the traits of paper that enable it to lay easily. Paper used in dictionaries and Bibles usually drapes very well. In very cheap books, stiff pages may not drape at all. Good draping requires astute paper choice and attention to its grain direction. If pages drape well, the binding will not be stressed during reading.
  5. Use/Absence of archaic s’s (ſ). This is only relevant with very old books. I understand there was some custom dictating the alternating use of the “s” we use today with one closely resembling an “f”. I don’t know what it was but I am too impatient to read through the s’s and f’s and the oldest copy of Milton I was comparing had the fruftrating f-looking s’s.
  6. Illustrations. I like illustrations. One of these Miltons was illustrated, but not by Gus Doré.
  7. Flexibility of binding. The manner in which the pages are structured and held in the binding. The Miltons I was comparing predated the deceptively named common contemporary commercial binding called perfect. These Miltons were pre-1880, made from sheets folded into gatherings, sewn together and bound. Perfect-bound books are loose pages glued together—their name is ironic and cynical. I do not know all the ways, but smart binding choices affect how well books lay open, hence ease of use for the reader.
  8. Beauty. I like a beautiful book and assess its beauty using all components. Paper, binding materials, design, typography, margins, décor, craftsmanship, illustration, and, yes, previous owner marks.
  9. Age. All three were old but not close enough to Milton’s time to matter. Dates ranged unimportantly from 1770 to 1880. Unless discussing primary editions, age is of low priority to me. Other traits are more influential.
  10. Value. Even though I sell books, when it comes to personal use, monetary value is a minor concern for me. If I own a valuable book, it is the best I could acquire. I will have chosen it because I love or admire it, or believe I will.

What did I choose? All were pretty. I excluded the big one and the one with the confufing s’s. The one with Sam Johnson’s essay fit nicely in my hand and laid open well. Had I chosen a different copy, I could not have found solace in Johnson’s wise words which include the phrase about Paradise Lost that reading once is enough. Half once was enough for me.