Rare books: a buyer’s guide

    11 January 2017

    As a bookseller, I’ve always thought that spending an alarmingly high proportion of my wages on books is a hazard of the job. You wouldn’t put an alcoholic in charge of an off-licence or let a kid run a sweet shop, and yet here I am, chronically addicted to books, spending all day in an environment that feeds this illness with countless enticing treats and a staff discount. True, as addictions go, it could be worse, but I worry that instead of frittering away money on the contents of my bookshelves, I ought to be saving for sensible things like childcare or fixing our dilapidated roof.

    It turns out, however, that I needn’t feel guilty, because spending money on books can be a means of earning money. It isn’t spending, it’s investing. It’s just that I’ve been investing in the wrong sort of books — cheap, mass-produced paperbacks instead of precious rare old things.

    I do own a few rare books. Three years ago my mother instigated a tradition of buying a special book for my birthday. It began with a trip to Peter Harrington’s Chelsea premises, where we spent a heavenly hour browsing. The hour was purely gratuitous as I’d spotted the book I desired within five minutes, when I reached B and chanced upon a copy of Bowen’s Court by Elizabeth Bowen inscribed: ‘E.M. Forster from Elizabeth Bowen June 1942’. Two of the books I’ve found most inspiring for my own novel-in-progress are Bowen’s Court and Forster’s Howards End, so to find them yoked together in this singular edition felt like fate.

    I still can’t believe that Forster’s copy of Bowen’s Court is now my own. I look at the inscription and my imagination whirls with questions: how did Bowen present her book to Forster — did she post it, or give it to him over tea? Was it hot that day in June? Was she nervous as to what he’d make of it, and what did he make of it? Did they discuss any favourite, or less favourite, passages? What were its neighbours on his bookshelf? Where did he like to read it — in an armchair, at the table, in bed? I love the story written by Bowen in this book, but I love more the story of the thing itself, whispered by those few words of its inscription. This feeling of contact with its past is what makes the book so precious. A rare book is a lo-fi, yet uncannily effective, time-travelling device in a way that a common paperback and certainly an ebook are not.

    So much for the pleasure, but what makes this financially sensible is that rare books tend to increase in value, although of course there is an element of risk. Adam Douglas at Peter Harrington offers two pieces of advice. First, buy the best possible copy of a book. This means a copy as close to the original publication as possible — first edition, first impression and with the original dust jacket. Dust jackets used to be considered worthless. When you bought a book, the seller would offer to remove its cover. This means that jackets can be extremely rare and, with our focus nowadays on a book’s appearance, they are highly prized. Peter Selley at Sotheby’s tells me that a first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby without a dust jacket would go for something in the region of the low thousands, but a first edition with a dust jacket recently sold in New York for $350,000.

    Second, rather than buying one book as an investment, build a whole collection around your interests. ‘A book is like a single stock; a library is like a portfolio,’ explains Douglas. He tells me that books about Alan Turing and his contemporaries are worth far more than they were a decade ago, not because of Benedict Cumberbatch, but because people who made their money in the digital revolution want to collect the books of their heroes. Ed Maggs of Maggs Bros stresses the financial risk that comes with our changing tastes. ‘Quite simply there are no “blue-chip” books. D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley and George Bernard Shaw have all gone down in value considerably over the past 20 years — there is a political seriousness about them which doesn’t ring true today.’

    Contemporary authors are riskier still, as it’s so hard to tell whose reputation will continue to flourish and who will be consigned to the margins of literary history. I ask Selley which of today’s authors would make a sound investment. ‘I can only guess,’ he says, ‘but the new vogue for writing about the vanishing English countryside by writers like Robert Macfarlane is an interesting phenomenon, and I’d also consider the more experimental novels — Ali Smith’s recent How To Be Both is a good example.’

    Of course the real problem with making money by collecting books is that to get the cash, you have to sell. ‘Collectors often hold on to a few favourites,’ Adam Douglas says, ‘and often the sellers aren’t the collectors themselves, but inheritors.’ Indeed, some friends of mine made a living for a while by selling off a library they inherited, book by book, on

    My most recent birthday book is a first edition of All Passion Spent, Vita Sackville-West’s fictional counterpart to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own — chosen to celebrate the recent birth of my daughter Vita. I look at the book on my shelf and feel all the thrill that comes with owning this precious thing, bought at such a special moment in my life, and know that I will never be able to sell it. When I think about handing it on to Vita, however, I feel the reassuring weight of having invested in something sensible. I hope she will inherit a book precious for its memories, and also a little literary nest egg if needs be.

    This article was first published in Spectator Life in June 2015