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Building a library

Ed Maggs

Building a library: a collection of apothegms.

I was asked to write about building a library but out of nervousness found it impossible to write with any coherence. As the subjects of books themselves are infinitely varied, so are the ways of loving them, of living with them, of ordering them, of buying and selling. I might as well give instructions for raising children, conducting a love affair, or running a business.

Instead some observations, made during thirty years on the job.

Read as much as you can, and have confidence in your own judgment. Very soon you will know more about your special interests than nearly all booksellers, who typically  have wide knowledge, thinly spread. Those who are real specialists, listen to.

Collections are defined by what’s left out. The greatest collections are winnowed from the most material: the moraines of the booktrade are littered with the stones rejected by builders of great collections. 

At its best a collection is a coherent group of books and associated material that illustrates and illuminates its subject. As the collection grows it informs and commentates upon itself – each book becomes more important for being next to the other. 

Make friends with booksellers and auctioneers. If you have chosen them well they will reward you with first offers and sensible prices. Despite appearances, the book trade is not a conspiracy against you, the collector. Within the constraints of needing to make a living out of our trade, we are on the same side. 

Buy the best you can afford. Be honest with yourself and when you can’t afford something, say so rather than make a specious case for its undesirability. 

Don’t buy for investment. If that is your primary concern, your judgment will be warped by the current state of the market, and you may end up buying at the top. This is not the same as advising to buy without regard to commercial value – no one wants to throw their money away.

Be suspicious of over-arching rules (such as those set out here!). The head of a fine bookshop once grandly lectured a tyro collector (to become an important customer, but not of that establishment) “Only buy first editions” – he might as well have added “my boy”, not knowing that the customer had just spent a large amount of money with that very firm on a fine Jane Austen in original boards. A second edition Jane Austen in boards.

Above all, buy with your heart. Buy what you understand, what you love, what moves you, not what established taste dictates. This is not to decry connoisseurship, scholarship, and the wisdom of the wise, but equally do not be uncritical.

Don’t expect your non-collecting friends to understand. This is more marked with books than with, say, paintings. One’s relationship with a book is by its nature intimate and personal: only one person can read a book at one time. The majority of people just don’t understand the point of it, and unless they show a real interest don’t even try to show off – you’ll bore them and embarrass yourself. 

You will be asked many questions by the uncomprehending.

Q. “Have you read them all?"

 “No, I need something to look forward to when I get old.”

Q. “How many books have you got.”

“Not quite enough.”

Q. “But it’s so fragile that you can’t read it without damaging it.”

“Do you really think I’d spend that much on a book without having already read it? Besides, that’s just my keeping copy – I’ve got another one for reading.”

Q. “What’s your most expensive book?”

“Don’t be so vulgar, but I’ll show you my favourite one?”

Q. “Paperbacks are good enough for me.”

“Oh, and watching movies in aeroplanes is good enough as well?”

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