“Are you talking to the books again?”
I’m currently surrounded by about 500 books, acquired yesterday from an elderly couple about 20 minutes away from town who were selling them on behalf of another woman whose sister just passed away. Apparently she didn’t have any friends, she just read a lot, played music, and did outdoorsy things like hiking and skiing.
Far from being an expert, when we went out to their property to price the books, I was mostly guessing. All of them looked at least 15-20 years old, at most 60 years old. So they were in great condition, but they’re old. Not old, just old. When it was obvious they didn’t like the amount I proposed to pay for the whole lot, I tried not to talk about the age too much. It seems insensitive to talk to elderly folks about something not being valuable because it’s old. Old in people years, not in ancient civilization years.
Old in people years is precious, but not exciting or sexy. Some books get to transcend people years. That’s part of the reason people like them so much. Books are timeless!
Except they’re not. I have already maneuvered around and sneezed and coughed and waded through enough piles of books to see very plainly that most books are not timeless, as objects or as ideas. Most books live regular people lives. They live, they’re shiny for a while, then they get “that smell”, and then they die.
It’s difficult to be objective about the arbitrary value of a book. I often find really great stories in thrift stores that are mass produced and thus too boring to sell in the store for more than fifty cents. Maybe a dollar. You can’t have too many books like that – they take up space. I want to liberate these books, give them away for free if I have to, but I’d quickly run out of the limited budget I have to start with buying freebies.
My aesthetic eye is actually much more useful at this point than my knowledge of books and publishing. If the design looks so generic that a first year graphic design student could do it, I know it won’t re-sell for much. As ignorant as we tend to be talking about art and design, we’re a demanding public. The graphic designer is just as important to the success of the book as the writer. (Of course, this depends on how you define success, which is always in flux.)
When I buy a bunch of books and then later look at them online, I am generally pretty spot on for how much I estimated their value. It turns out you can judge a book by its cover.
That said, as I steadily work at adding each book to my inventory Excel sheet, noting the condition of the book, if it’s signed, if it’s a first edition, I often find beautiful illustrations and type between some of the most mundane-looking covers. I catch a sentence with a genuine voice. Collect a slip of paper with a drawing on it. Find an inscription to a loved one.
I am sorry we didn’t see you this Christmas. It wasn’t the same…
I hope you enjoy this story as much I did at your age…
Happy birthday! I can’t believe you’re already 15…
Let me know what you think of the book.
It’s not that hard to look at a book and discern its monetary value if you have a visually critical eye. If you quickly flip through it and spot some water damage or a handful of dog-eared pages, knock the number down a bit lower. Too much damage and it’s dead weight.
Sometimes I find a book that is old and smelly, or damaged in a way that makes it less appealing to look at, and I can’t bring myself to discard it because a little girl has written her name in crayon on the inside cover or the words are printed so crisply that I run my fingers across them like bedsheets with a high thread count.
“Are you talking to the books again?”
“Well, as long as they don’t respond.”