I recently watched a documentary about antiquarian booksellers. The Internet’s taking its toll, but there are still enough collectors of pricy rare volumes to keep some of these wonderful book dealers alive. I am not one.
My confession, as someone who has to build bookcases before he can move into any new space, is that I favor uncollectable books. The thing is, I use them for their original purposes: reading and inspiration. So I’ve always been that anathema of the bookseller; I’m someone who just wants a hardcover old library-edition copy to read, not a valuable one.
My library will probably have to be recycled into pulp someday. It’s not going to make anyone a profit. Except me. And it will not be a financial profit. I’m thinking about my intellectual profit–which, I really expected as I began to write this essay, would be a term others must use too. But a Google search turns up nothing.
Google keeps ‘correcting’ my search for ‘intellectual profit’ to ‘intellectual property’, the kind you can monetize. What I gain is quite the opposite. I get to enjoy knowledge, ideas, stories, factoids, and more from thousands of authors freely offered in old books.
In Latin, intelligere meant to understand or discern. The meaning long predates our modern dichotomy between intellectualism and anti-intellectualism. But in my bookshelves, the mind does not live in a glass jar, it’s fully connected to the body with all its emotions and senses. I want to know how people lived, loved, despaired, rejoiced, and thought. I use my books to help me write stories.
So, back to the perplexing problem of the term, intellectual profit. What I discern for a meaning is this: The insights and connections I enjoy as a result of my books–whether from reading them, handling them, or recombining them (my shelves are constantly rearranging in response to my inquiries). Sometimes the profit is visual–they can be as exciting as framed works of art and some have prints of great art within them. Other times it’s the book itself–a gorgeous if somewhat time-worn leather cover, a marbled endpaper. Mostly, though, it’s the words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, stories, characters, and thoughts.
And to enjoy my books, to be inspired and educated by them, I must be able to read them without worrying about money. So I look for an inexpensive edition–but one that is printed on good paper in decent sized type. Hence my love of antiquarian booksellers, who have deep inventories of unimportant older editions, including the classics of literature and obscure old references and travel logs.
Let’s just say you wanted to travel to Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood in 1900. Red brick row houses and gilded age mansions, local shops to fill your basket with dinner ingredients, stores selling books to read or instruments to play at home in the evening (since there was barely any radio programming, let alone Netflix). Not to mention streets full of horse-drawn carriages. An old atlas of Boston would be helpful, wouldn’t it? And there were old guidebooks for visitors that capture long-lost details. I even have old cookbooks–otherwise, how to know what a meal would have been like?
When I write about Silent Lee, who lives in a row house on Newbury Street that has a door leading from contemporary Boston to a magical (but otherwise historically accurate) version of Boston around 1900, my bookshelves are my time travel machine. I have just to open a dozen volumes to find myself there on the sidewalk in front of my great-grandmother’s house on the corner of Commonwealth Ave. and Dartmouth Street again. My characters need me to make the journey first, so that I can guide them and their readers through an authentic day on the streets of Boston 120 years ago.
I have a lot of old books and I use them often. However, they aren’t picked for their monetary value. Quite the opposite. Which means I’m no collector of books by any standard measure.
In truth, I’m a collector of a very different sort. I collect for my own intellectual profit. And what a wonderful profit it is!
Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure, available in paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon–or from your local independent bookstore! His curriculum guides for teaching literature and writing are now available on the Webster Press website in the Teacher's Lounge.