I just bought a beautiful Poe (Tales of Mystery, Imagination and Humour; and Poems, Vizetelly 1852) and had it restored. A fairly uncontroversial step for a bookseller, you’d think, but one that contains a myriad conflicting schools of thought and centuries of argument. The question of what, if anything, to do to the books we own has any number of answers depending on who you’re asking, what book it is and why it’s in their possession (to collect, to curate, to sell). I’m going to give one answer based on one book, and explain why it could never be definitive even though I’m sure I did the right thing.
When I buy a book, it always starts with the wanting. It could be basic, no-brainer stock or something I covet wildly. The commercial justifications in either case are the same, and I either make my case or decide not to buy. In buying and selling, condition is king. Unless and until (there are no rules! And this is the only time bookselling will be compared to no-holds-barred cage-fighting) somebody is in a position to alter condition. For me, this is a commercial consideration because I may have to spend more money on top of the purchase price, and in any case I have to think about how I’m affecting the book’s value.
When I bought it, my Poe looked like this:
I should say now that I will only buy books in this condition if they are important or worthwhile, by my lights at least. This is the first illustrated Poe, which presses all my buttons as a dealer and a reader. A similarly knackered volume of Greek patristic theology dug out of a Crossrail plague pit would be dismissed out of hand.
These were my options:
1) Restore. The nature and extent of any restoration would depend on whatever balance I wished to maintain between preserving original features and extending the book’s life as a functional object.
2) Rebind. This would guarantee the book’s function, erase some of its history but add a whole new dimension of art.
3) Refrain. Do nothing beyond wrapping a bit of linen tape around it and maybe finding a nice box, to preserve the book in its entirety as an authentic survival.
All of these options are valid, though not equally so in the case of every book.
Restoring a book allows, with caveats, the modern reader to own and enjoy it in a close-to-original state if done sympathetically. It is a very carefully negotiated compromise.
Rebinding a book can allow it to live for centuries more and is a major factor in the present-day availability of hundreds of years worth of printing. It is a noble art, a point of collectors’ interest in its own right.
Refraining is generally more a curatorial than a commercial action, but it can still have enormous value. An untouched survival of a Shakespeare first folio moves us away from book as object to book as holy relic. The historical interest and sheer amount of cash involved would be tremendous.
Bearing all of this in mind and throwing in personal prejudice and a thought for my likely customer, I chose to restore. A final consideration was that this rare book can already be bought rebound or untouched, and being able to offer an alternative appealed to me.
This is what my Poe looks like now:
My intention in this case was to restore the book’s function with minimal interference, so I chose to do nothing to the edges, corners or endpapers. The spine was renewed with calf in a colour chosen to tone with the book’s paper boards. For greater authenticity I could have used card, but that wouldn’t have provided much of a new lease on life for something initially so fragile.
This is the kind of information (minus the rambling self-justification and beard-stroking) all proper booksellers provide in catalogue descriptions or face-to-face. We all can, and indeed must, tell you what a book has had done to it whether we did it ourselves or not. To ask why is to open a whole other can of bookworms.