December 31, 2013

The Year Books Became Luxury Objects

Interesting piece here that posits that aesthetic pleasue is what books are really all about. Therefore, since e-books are so much more efficient and convenient, one's home bookshelves amount to the equivalent of a literary "trophy case," showing that the owner has supposedly read whatever classic titles sit on the shelves. Hmmm, I'm not so sure I buy that, though that might be the case for exquisite limited editions with fine bindings and/or handmade paper that showcase the bookmaking art.

Happy New Year one and all! I hope that all Civil War and general book-loving visitors to this site discover something of interest and enjoyment. May 2014 be the year that you find a pristine copy of that $500 rare book you've been seeking forever for only a few bucks!

December 17, 2013

African-American 1800s Prison Memoir

Just a bit off topic, but interesting nonetheless. Random House has acquired what appears to be the oldest US prison memoir written by an African American. The 304-page manuscript, by a man named Austin Reed, was recently authenticated by scholars at Yale University.

Titled The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict, or the Inmate of a Gloomy Prison, the memoir traces Reed’s story of imprisonment and harsh punishment while he was at a state prison in upstate New York from the 1830s to the 1850s. The full online article may be found here.

There are a few interesting comments regarding copyright and public domain, including some that wonder just who a fee is being paid to. It also appears that the original, handwritten manuscript is online here.

December 3, 2013

A Book's Provenance

A book’s “provenance” is the chronological history of its ownership and can also include a study of how certain individual titles passed from one owner to the next.

Obviously, for the vast, vast majority of books, who owned the book in the past is irrelevant and, in fact, any type of previous owner’s signature, rubber stamp, or bookplate is generally viewed as a fault with regards to the book’s condition.

On the other hand, such identifying marks can be a positive is if the book came from the library of a person of note, someone connected to the author, or someone closely related to the book’s subject. In the world of Civil War book collecting, such previous owner markings can add to a book’s luster if that previous owner was a Civil War veteran or politician.

For example, I recently acquired a nice copy of John W. Headley’s Confederate Operations in Canada and New York (Neale, 1906) from a very reputable book dealer. The front endpaper of the book contains the signature of J. Taylor Ellyson and also the rubber stamp of J. William Jones of 709 ½ Clay St. in Richmond. The dealer pointed out that Ellyson (1847-1919) served in the Confederacy’s “Richmond Howitzers” and was later a three-term mayor of Richmond. Jones (1836-1909) was a Confederate chaplain and the author of Christ in the Camp (1887) and The Life and Letters of Robert E. Lee (Neale, 1906). He has been described by one modern historian as "the single most important link between Southern religion and the Lost Cause." Such ownership history adds cachet to any book.

So all in all, if you have a 19th-century Civil War book with an earlier owner’s signature or two in the front, it might pay to do a bit of research to try and find out who that person was!

November 29, 2013

The Battle of Cedar Creek

Six years ago to the day on this blog, I wrote about the Virginia Civil War Battles and Leaders series published by H. E. Howard, Inc. from approximately 1984 to 2000. The first printings of each title in the series were published in matching dark blue bindings with gold gilt lettering, austere white and gold dust jackets, and were limited to 1000 copies signed and numbered by the author on a special tipped-in signature page.

Over the years, any first edition in jacket from the battles series that is not a library discard has become quite collectible, notwithstanding what was considered to be a wide discrepancy in the scholarly merits of one book to the next.

From my collector’s vantage and in discussions with used and rare book dealers, it appears the most difficult first edition to acquire in collector’s condition from that series has been Theodore Mahr’s 1992 work titled Early’s Valley Campaign: The Battle of Cedar Creek: Showdown in the Shenandoah October 1-30, 1864. I can’t put my finger on why this particular title has become so scarce compared to others in the series, as evidenced by the fact that fine first editions of this book in dust jacket often command prices in the $200 and up range. I even once saw a second printing with an asking price of $150! Until last month, I did not own a first edition copy despite years of searching, so when I came across a pristine, jacketed copy for considerably less than that figure, I jumped all over it.

Moreover, unlike many other titles in the series, the writing and research of this book is considered top-notch though, according to the author, the book was essentially an edited version of his master’s thesis. Mr. Mahr commented on his book on Eric Wittenberg’s blog in early 2008, in which the former National Park Historian acknowledged his gratitude to such seminal authors as Robert Krick, Gary Gallagher and Jeffrey Wert, all of whom gave his work a well-deserved thumbs up.

As you read in those comments, Mr. Mahr mentioned that there will be an updated revision to this work. I’ve been in touch with the author recently and he states that he is at work on his revision, though there is no timetable. The original book went through three printings at 1500 copies per print run and was focused primarily on the Confederate perspective, whereas his new work will be far more balanced and feature a considerable amount of source material unknown to the author when he was working on his thesis decades ago. Those of us in the Civil War book community wish Mr. Mahr nothing but the best and eagerly look forward to reading his revised work.

November 27, 2013

Wow!

I was engaged in this auction but fell just a wee bit short... ;-)

November 20, 2013

The Top 12 Civil War Books Ever Written?

I just discovered this article from way back in December 2010 in which the author lists his Top 12 Civil War books of all time. As he readily admits, it is highly subjective and is assembled with some ground rules such as no biographies, no fiction, nothing published prior to 1950, and no multi-volume sets, which obviously leaves out a lot of classic titles.

Given those rules, how many of these would be on your list?

While all of these may be fine books, none of them are difficult to aquire as first editions, with the Catton and McPherson probably being the most expensive. One interesting note is that the 1954 Pulitzer Prize-winning Stillness at Appomattox was reissued in 1982 by the Book-of-the-Month Club as an oversized hardcover in slipcase (see pic) that can be a handsome alternative to the first edition. Pictured copy offered here.

November 16, 2013

The Current State of Civil War Book Collecting

Three times in the past month I was notified by long-time Civil War booksellers as to how each one had recently acquired a large collection of superb quality and rarity; collections that had been carefully built by their owners for decades. In each case, the seller stated that there were rarities included that they had not been able to offer for sale for thirty to forty years or longer.

While this is good news for serious collectors looking for particularly scarce wants, it also highlights the ongoing fact that book collectors who acquired the collecting bug during or after the Civil War centennial (when they were in their twenties or thirties) are now elderly and looking to sell. A key question is are there enough young collectors today to replace them?

Sadly, after talking with numerous booksellers over the past few years, I've concluded the answer is no, not by a long shot. Until the recent advent of the internet and such sites like Google Books and archive.org, many older books, such as 19th-century regimentals, were valuable not merely because of their scarcity, but also because of the information they contained; information that could not be found anywhere else. Now with the rise of these internet sites, that factor has been eliminated. Of course, ebooks have further hurt traditional book readership, not to mention a possible general decline in reading across the board.

Then there has been the rise of book search engines like ABE that bring book sellers and buyers together. These sites, which rose to prominence in the 1990s, have made millions of books available to the book buying public with just a few keystrokes, books that in the past were somewhat hidden in that they were only available through used and rare book stores or dealer's catalogs. An end result was the revelation that the vast, vast majority of titles were quite common, which thereby pushed prices down, down and down. Conversely, truly rare and scarce titles were shown to be just that, and their prices ratcheted upward. This phenomenem played out somewhat with Civil War books but was especially the case for 20th-century literature.

These old school dealers all seem to agree that the high water mark for Civil War book collecting was the 1990s. Since then, demand for anything less than the rarest of the rare has tapered off and prices have therefore fallen. One dealer told me how back in the day he could acquire a truly rare ACW title and have to decide among six or so collectors as to who he was going to offer it to, knowing that all would buy without hesitation. Not any more.

What this means is that an old book collecting adage is more true than ever: Collect what you truly love and you'll probably never lose money or sleep. And remember the three most important factors in determining the value of an old book are condition, condition, and condition. On the other hand, if you buy a book because of its perceived investment value, you'll probably lose out big time.