Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The oldest book I own

The weekend before Thanksgiving, my mom and I went to an estate sale in my neighborhood. The sale had a lot of old books for sale — some of them quite old, others only 50 or 60 years old.

It was from this sale that I bought what is now the oldest book in my collection. I had never heard of the book before — Junius's Letters — but as soon as I saw the title page I knew I was buying it:

I don't know if you can translate the Roman numerals or read the faint penciled date underneath, but this book was printed in 1795, well over 200 years ago. In comparison, the oldest book previously in my collection was a book of Moore's poetry from the 1870s.

I love really old books like this, and I especially love owning one. As a reader and a writer of historical fiction, it gives a sense of authenticity to actually have held a book from the era in my hands. I am especially tickled by the old style of using "f" instead of "s" in some places, such as in the word "English" on this page:

The book is in surprisingly good condition. There is some writing on the front and rear endpapers and on the title page, and as you can see, there is a small chunk of leather missing from the very top of the spine. The boards (front and rear covers) are dry with some surface cracks, but are not warped. Although the pages are lightly discolored with age, the binding is original and tight.

Overall, the condition is amazing considering the age of this book. However, I am going to look into how to better preserve the old leather cover. The book has clearly been stored in a box for a very long time, which has made the leather dry out. I want to try to reverse some of that damage, as I think the leather can easily be returned to its original luster (though the surface cracks, of course, are permanent).

As it turns out, this book was an excellent find. I bought this and three others — a 1901 miniature book of Lincoln's writings that is in excellent condition, an 1813 book in only fair condition, and a beautiful gift version of an illustrated poetry book that probably dates to about 1880 — for only $12. I researched the books, and found that the cheapest of the four — the tiny Lincoln book — is worth $30 to $40. Junius's Letters is worth the most: Copies in comparable condition sell on Abebooks.com for $150 and $175.

It is finds like these that make collecting so satisfying.

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