Old Books, Old Librarians, and Literary Iceland

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December 29, 2015 by libroshombre

There’s much to commend about old books, beginning with the observation of Victorian critic John Ruskin, “All books are divisible into two classes: the books of the hour, and the books of all time.” Some have monetary value, but most, apart from sentimental regard, are worth very little. Librarians aren’t appraisers, not possessing a certified appraiser’s skill and experience, but people often ask “if this old book’s worth anything.”

It’s easy to winnow out some. A jillion editions of Twain, Dickens, etc. were published when the industrial revolution fueled the rapid growth of reading. Today such books are generally worth a few bucks at most. I recommend checking out their book’s price range at BookFinder.com, who gathers listings from hundreds of private book dealers, as well as Powell’s, Amazon, ABE, and other online used book venders. Then hire an appraiser, which isn’t cheap.

But you never know. Once a Texas school teacher asked me to look at a half-dozen books she’d inherited. They looked like nothing special, but a rare book dealer in Austin found that the inside papers of one of the bindings was made from Revolutionary War currency. Two months ago a map of Tolkien’s Middle Earth that was annotated by the author was found loose inside a copy of “Lord of the Rings” owned by the late English illustrator Pauline Baynes. She drew the Middle Earth map found in most editions of Tolkien’s books, and he doodled on a copy during a visit in 1969, indicating that Hobbiton and Oxford share the same latitude, and the fictional city of Minas Tirith was inspired by Ravenna, Italy.

An American English professor also made a serendipitous discovery last October, according to a NY Times article titled, “Earliest Known Draft of King James Bible Is Found.” Jeffrey Miller was poking around the Cambridge University archives when he came a cross “an unassuming notebook about the size of a modern paperback, wrapped in a stained piece of waste velum and filled with some 70 pages of Ward’s nearly indecipherable handwriting” dating from 1604-8. Samuel Ward was one of the King James Bible (KJB) translators, and he possessed such awful handwriting librarians had miscataloged the little book as a biblical commentary. Actually, it was the KJB’s “earliest known draft, and the only one definitively written in the hand of one of the roughly four-dozen translators who worked on it.”

David Norton, a leading KJB expert “called it ‘a major discovery’ – if not quite equal to finding a draft of one of Shakespeare’s plays, ‘getting on up there.”

Guess what? A CNN.com article from last April said, “New research indicates that ‘Double Falsehood,’ a play first published in 1728 by Lewis Theobald, was actually written more than a century earlier by Shakespeare himself, with help from his friend John Fletcher. University of Texas researchers “analyzed 33 plays by Shakespeare, nine by Fletcher, and 12 by Theobald to create a ‘psychological signature’ of each author based on word choices, phrase patterns, and other factors … the play’s first half was almost entirely written by Shakespeare, though the second half appeared to be split evenly between Shakespeare and Fletcher. Only tiny traces of Theobald’s signature were found.” “Double Falsehood” is also known as “The Distressed Lovers” and is based on the “Cardeno” section of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.”

The best way to pass along books for future generations to value is give them today. They do this better in Iceland than anywhere. An online article by Giulia Trentacosti described Iceland’s Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas book flood,” festival. The majority of Iceland’s books are published around Christmastime when it’s traditional to exchange new and used books. The flood comes from the fact that Iceland is so literate. “With around 330,000 inhabitants, Iceland is certainly one of the smallest book markets in the world. Nevertheless, it boasts one of the highest rates of books per capita.” They also each read an average of eight books annually, and “an impressive 98% read at least one.” Giving and reading books in a national pastime.

Exchanging holiday books is an old Hill family tradition, and that includes old collectable comic books. Sometimes, as American sage Ralph Emerson noted, “Old age is a good advertisement.”

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