Sunday, 24 February 2013

Booked Up

I love books and I love to read them.

To many readers the sentence above may seem odd; the first half could be redundant. Most people would simply write, “I love to read books” and leave it at that. But I actually love books – not the modern print-a-million-copies editions; the original antiquarian volumes. I can appreciate the beauty and artistry that went in to creating a, say, pre-1850 book. I love to look at the fine leather bindings, feel the texture of the paper, be inspired by the artistry of the drawings (this is the pre-camera era), admire the large fold-out maps, and wallow in the scent that is unique to old tomes. I can appreciate the craftsmanship that went in to creating a fine book, such as the leather tooling and the hand colored plates (making each copy of the book unique).

As a young boy, I voraciously devoured all the books I could find at my school library on the subject of geographic exploration. As I grew older, I became fixated on reading about discovery of the Polar Regions. Until 1985, I did not do much about my interest other than visiting the library and buying the occasional book. For my birthday that year, my parents gave me a book on exploration in the Canadian Arctic that was published in the 1860s. I was intoxicated with the look, feel, and smell of this relic from a bygone era. I had in my hands a piece of history that “lived” through an important era of polar history, including the mapping of the Canadian Arctic, the first traversal of the North-west Passage, and the discovery of the North (and South) Pole(s). This book was a witness to an era that I knew so much about. It deserved my respect.

I was hooked, and quickly discovered that there were antiquarian bookstores in Edmonton. I started buying old books to do with polar exploration. I could now read (and admire) the original source, not a modern copy/interpretation. And as I did so, I began to fall in love with old books in general. It did not matter what the subject matter was. If it was old, then it had a story to tell.

On every trip that I make, I do my research to find all the antiquarian bookstores in the area, and carefully map out a travel route to reach as many of them as is possible. I troll the web daily looking for new items coming available for sale. Annually I make trips to Toronto in October and California in February for antiquarian book fairs. London has a superb show in June (only made it once) and New York in April (never been, alas).


I spent five hours at the California Book Fair (San Francisco) last week. There were almost 200 vendors selling an impressive array of old books and ephemera. Some dealers had items for sale from the late 1400s – volumes that were printed a scant few years after the invention of the printing press. (At the London fair two years ago, you could purchase pages from a Gutenberg bible; a single page was too rich for me.) Others had more recent stock, such as mint condition, first edition copies of books by John Steinbeck, Ian Fleming, J.R.R. Tolkien, and a host of other 20th century authors. (Of interest that although a book may be rare, a mint condition dust jacket may be even rarer.)
A view of the California Antiquarian Book Fair exhibits.
There were relatively few books available at the fair that matched my narrow field of collecting interest. But if you had come with me, perhaps I might have been able to interest you in buying… First editions of Captain James Cook’s three voyages in matching leather binding? George Vancouver’s monumental mapping expedition to the west coast of Canada? John Franklin’s two land expeditions to the northern coast of Canada? A signed copy of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s first trip to the Antarctic? All were available for purchase, with four and five digit price tags. Here’s a quiz for you: which one had a price tag that was almost six digits?

A typical booth at the book fair.
Although I did not buy anything this year at this year’s fair, I still enjoyed the time I spent looking for treasures, talking with book dealers, and admiring the incredible books on display. My hunt was not in vain. At a bookstore in Oakland I found two polar exploration books from the early 1900s: both in excellent condition, one with a rare dust jacket, both were signed by the authors, and both were at a bargain price. That was a very good day!

Spectacular hand-coloured illustrations.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a fun trip indeed. My bet is the six-figure price was for the Captain Cook trilogy.

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