Saturday, January 27, 2007

Book lust

For at least a year and a half now I've been coveting one particular book: it's a first-edition of a seventeenth-century work, it's in very good shape, and it's under $1000.00.

Now, I don't have $1000.00. In fact, I have many many thousands of negative dollars on my credit cards. But my expenses should stabilize by summertime and I'm hoping that, perhaps, by year's end I could be in a position to buy this thing.

The question is, though--is it worth the money?

Pros:
First, there's the fact that $1000.00 is an incredible price for a work that's nearly 400 years old. It's also bound in calfskin, and it's a pretty sizable text. Its price alone is neither here nor there--but my eye is always caught by a bargain.

More importantly, this is a text that I (and about three other people) consider both fascinating and important, and that I intend to start working on in the not-too-distant-future. I'd love to have an original copy to work from, just for the coolness factor alone, but I also sort of need an original copy: my interest is specifically in that first edition, but the author revised and expanded the work many times before his death; most modern editions are therefore conflated (and usually incomplete) texts. The one scholarly edition is a) out of print (and the one time I saw it on ABE it was fully $500), and b) also, necessarily, a conflated text. It's possible to find all the first edition readings from it, but impossible to get a real sense of the edition as a whole.

Maybe I could write off the purchase on my taxes, as a business expense?

Maybe the book might be considered an investment? It's not, obviously, a really hot item right now, but I can imagine that in 10 or 20 years its value could more than double.

Cons (in addition to the expense):
The first edition is available in most of the major rare books libraries, which is where I've looked at it previously. There aren't any such collections near me, but this could make for a good summer fellowship proposal.

I just discovered that there's a facsimile copy of the first edition for sale on ABE. It's $300, so a third of the price of the original (but without the coolness, the possible investment value, etc.).

Other possibly relevant factors:
I haven't yet seen this copy, but it's in a location where I have friends and occasionally visit, so I wouldn't be buying it sight-unseen.

The book is also being sold by a bookseller who, it turns out, one of my colleagues is quite friendly with. I doubt that that would affect the price, but a personal connection is never a bad thing.

I can't use my start-up funds to purchase books, but there IS an internal grant that I could apply for that might conceivably fund part or all of the purchase.

So, I dunno. Any thoughts?

17 comments:

life_of_a_fool said...

My first thought was your last "relevant factor" -- if you can get someone else to buy it for you, all the better. If I were you, I'd probably try the grant first and then, if that didn't pan out, buy it myself (though this depends on whether or not it's likely that someone else would buy it in the meantime). Your pro reasons would be enough to convince me to buy it for myself. . .

Anonymous said...

If you love it -- the artifact and the subject -- buy it. While the facsimiles satisfy the purely academic "necessity," holding the original, owning the original, loving the original -- all of those satisfy the reason that people originally created and valued books. That can't be substituted. For anyone who deals with history, having at least one such beloved artifact is akin to having that one great little black dress or the perfect interview suit. I'd say ... buy it and treasure it. (Unlike the clothing -- it won't go out of style or become too small!)

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

Yep, I agree, especially if you see this as something you'd be happy to own longer after this particular project is over. You can definitely write it off on your taxes, and if you can get a little grant money towards it, then it's a great deal.

Ianqui said...

I'd say that if you can get the grant, then go for it. Otherwise, I guess I personally would go with the facsimile copy.

Alternatively, talk to a rare books dealer and make sure that it would be a good investment if you do decide to do it.

What Now? said...

How's this for unhelpful: I would buy both the original and the facsimile (of course trying for the grant that would help with the purchase). And then I'd use the facsimile for my academic work and save the original for the coolness factor.

And I'm really not a spendthrift at all -- in fact, I can be quite cheapskate-ish about many things -- but I do think that it's worthwhile investing in books you care about.

RageyOne said...

I find this to be an interesting conundrum because I am not that familiar with the research you do in your field. Can you expand on how you will work on that piece in the not too distant future? If you can't do it in this space I wouldn't mind corresponding privately. Just a thought...

Now, whether to purchase a not? Well, I am a lover of books myself, so I understand your lust. I would err on the side of purchasing the book just on cause. I am never one to pass up on something I really want and it sounds like you have really thought this out. I say go for it! Try the grants out and wait until summer like you planned.

Good luck with your decision.

tony grafton said...

As one who's been buying old books since--gack!--the sixties, let me register agreement with the eloquent post by anonymous. Working at home on your own copy of a book the author might have seen or touched is a perpetual reward. I do believe that I see things in originals that I wouldn't note in facsimiles or EEBO downloads--but I know that one of the best parts of my current research project is setting my seventeenth-century Latin folios up on the book rack and reading along--with a cup of tea or coffee and my music playing. Can't do that in the rare book room.

Flavia said...

You people are such enablers!

Unfortunately, I can't apply for that grant this spring (I'm already applying for it to defray some of my excess conference travel), but I could apply again in the fall. Or perhaps I'll unexpectedly get a large tax return? We'll see, and I'll keep you posted. I do have an intense affection for books as objects, and this is a book that I would be delighted to own for the rest of my life, whether or not it's actually "worth" anything to anyone else.

Oh, and Ragey: since I'm a literature scholar, I analyze texts, so the basic problem is that I need a copy to work with! Imagine that I worked on Jane Austen, but that all her novels were long since out of print and the only place to read them was in the library. Sure, one can read a book there and take detailed notes, but that's not an ideal situation, especially when there isn't a copy in a library within an easy drive. And if one feels strongly about the text one's working on, there are emotional reasons to want a personal copy, too.

Bardiac said...

Go for it! The physical and sensual pleasure of an old book are worth it.

(But to add to the cons, do you have EEBO accessible in your library?)

medieval woman said...

Flave, totally get the book! Of course, I've spent large amounts of dough over the years for medieval manuscript leaves that I *won't* be working from! If it's not going to gouge you financially too much (i.e., it's either you buy the book or you keep your electricity on) - then I say go for it!

Flavia said...

Oh, yes: EEBO. My institution is right now in the process of getting an EEBO subscription, and should certainly have it up by next fall. But although I've always relied heavily on EEBO (and probably couldn't have contemplated staying at this school for very long without it!), I really don't like it for actual, serious, sustained reading. It's tiring on the eyes and I hate not being able to flip around forward and back. Last summer I had to read a 300-page civil-war-era polemic entirely on EEBO and it almost killed me.

jim said...

It's deductible. It's a tool of your trade (any books you buy for your research and teaching fall into this category), but there's a 2% of AGI bar: you can only deduct the excess over that.

dhawhee said...

the large tax return is totally what i'd wait for. I can't believe the startup funds can't be used for books. what else do humanists need? (ok, don't answer that, I know there are other things. but still.) any way you can inquire about that rule's flexibility?

Horace said...

I personally am one who likes owning things myself, but has anyone suggested talking to your library about the purchase? I'm not sure if your school has any sort of Rare Books collection, but university libraries are often supportive of the sorts of things that help your research agenda. $1K might be too big for a one-shot deal though, even with your stamp of approval. It's worth an ask, though.

dhawhee said...

Or a combo of Horace's and lots of other thoughts--you could buy it and then in a decade or two (or upon retirement) donate it to a worthy library. They could put plate it with Flavia's name! (I actually think that's kind of cool.)

Ancrene Wiseass said...

I'm leaning toward the "enabler" camp, myself.

There's the incomparable joy of working from the original text, sure, but you've also convinced me that this is a case in which you truly need frequent and sustained access to the original in order to do your work.

If you could get grant money, that'd be great, obviously--can you think of any sources outside of your university that might help? I also like the idea of seeing whether the library would buy it and then give you loads of access as an act of gratitude to you for pointing out such a great bargain. But if neither of those pans out, I'd say buy it. It would be an investment in your career and a real, tangible asset.

RageyOne said...

Thanks for the additional information Flavia. With that tidbit of knowledge, I'm definitely of the mindset to purchase the text. It sounds like it would make it so much easier to conduct your research.