Pathologies in the market for old books ( 2014.12.1[Mon.])


  In summer of 2014, I spent some time in Hongo while giving a lecture, and too the opportunity to visit one of my regular bookshops. I say regular with some hesitation, though, because in recent years I have been so busy that I am only able to go about once per year, if that. But hunting for antiquarian books is a leisurely pastime in any case, so I don’t suppose that is such a bad pace all things considered.

  My first shop of the day, which faces the Hongo campus main gate­—let’s call it ‘I Books’—is known for having the best selection of zoological and botanical books. I ended up purchasing three books on biological and natural history (see Fig.). At the second shop I visited—‘K Books’—is one I have written about in this column before. It’s closer to the Akamon side of the campus than I Books, just around the corner from the post office. Not much of a walk, but on a hot summer’s day with cicadas chirping madly all around, I had broken a sweat by the time I got there.

  This shop is famous for its collection of medical and biology texts, and I’m sure everyone who shares my interests knows which shop I am referring to. The shop has books in both Japanese and foreign languages, overflowing the stacks and piled up on the floor, which can make it difficult even to navigate the store. But for true book lovers, that’s a feature, not a bug.

  I know the owner of I Books by sight, but when I opened the door he, behind the counter, didn’t recognize me. May be the past few years had changed my appearance that much. But the proprietor just began bringing books for me to inspect and even allowed me to go up to the second floor for the first time. The stairs were cluttered with unsorted books, and in the upstairs room even the portrait of the late previous owner on the Buddhist altar seemed somehow happy to be surrounded by so many books. And how many books there were, and of such quality!

  But even allowing for that, I have no excuse for the book-buying binge. My shelves are full to the point I have to reckon where any new purchase can be wedged. But the shop owner told me that several researchers I know, including my close colleagues Drs. G and A, had been selling off their libraries, which explained the bonanza. Thankfully, this wasn’t an executor’s post-mortem, more of a housecleaning on the road to retirement. It always surprises me when I hear of someone I consider a contemporary being superannuated ahead of me, and I couldn’t help feel melancholy that a fellow book bug was giving up the game. It used to be that previously owned libraries would only turn up when the widow of the deceased contacted a shop to buy them, but it seems that now things are changing. I suppose this is due in part to people living longer, until they finally reach an age where they’re no longer driven to write manuscripts. Or perhaps people just feel secure in the knowledge that they just about everything is only a click away on the Internet. I suppose that means I should also start thinking about thinning my own collection, but I have to confess I haven’t even begun to consider that an option.

  In my spree at K Books, I picked up a copy of the exceedingly rare ’Biology of the Cyclostomes’ by M.W. Hardisty for 20,000 yen without thinking twice (se Fig., lower panel). For me, the rarity easily justified the price, and I can say from experience that sometimes the books one orders online often turn out to be overpriced. I have to agree with the proprietor of K Books, who told me the ability to search for antiquarian books online has taken a lot of the adventure out of the pursuit. The undeniable convenience is offset by the lack of excitement and serendipity.

  If you’re trying to put together a full 12-volume set of used books that are sold separately, for example, it can turn into a tantalizing quest as you trek from shop to shop as anticipation builds with each new find. The first 5 or 6 are easy, but when you get down to 3 or 4 to go, the discovery rate usually plummets and you may be tempted out of frustration or exhaustion to find shortcuts, and you find yourself thinking how an Internet search would make it easy. But if that’s the case, why not just buy the full set online from the start? Going to brick-and-mortar stores takes time and money. I’ll grant all of that, but I still can’t give up that jubilant satisfaction of stumbling upon the desideratum and clutching for the first time in the moment of glory.

  For those of us who have dedicated ourselves to this pursuit, the search engine can be an unwanted gift. Maybe this is my age talking, but I can’t help worry that some upstart who has never suffered for the calling may snatch up a treasure with the click of a mouse. Of course, I admit that I use the Internet as well, and would have a hard time weaning myself of it. It’s a dilemma.

  A second concern shared by the K Books owner is pricing; online stores don’t seem to have a method to their madness. Some books are wildly overpriced, while for others they are basically free if you pay the shipping. I realize there is some underlying logic to the online ordering and delivery business model, and I can’t complain about bargains, but this is another advantage of dubious benefit.

  One clear downside of online shopping is the inability to take an old book in hand and examine it. Most sites have their wares ranked by condition, with notes on common defects like sunning and foxing, but that doesn’t really suffice (of course I understand that it would be unfeasible to try to describe every book in finer detail). At the same time, when you come across an actual book in a physical store, you are forced to agonize over whether it is priced too high given its condition, or whether there might not be a better-preserved edition at some other store. Online searches that let you compare multiple offerings of the same title do take some of the uncertainty out of these kinds of buying decisions.

  Old books are more than just old books. Just because a book is old, doesn’t make it an antiquarian find. In fact, I wouldn’t be bothered in the least if the vast quantity of semiliterate throwaway reads disappeared from the face of the earth. But some books are destined for the designation from the time they are conceived and written, even if their value is only recognized after they go out of print. Works by Tatsuhiko Shibusawa or Hiroshi Aramata surely fall into that category. You could say that any natural history book or journal issue does as well, as they preserve the memory of the discipline. Personal libraries are like zoos or botanical gardens in the sense that they manifest the wonderful pathos of scientific collection. There is no denying that book collecting is a sickness, but is there any hope for a cure?