An Affinity for the Unassuming.

Ryan Van Plew-Cid is a Senior Bibliographer in the Antiquarian, Rare, and Collectible Books section at Better World Books.  A self-professed Man of Leisure/Gentleman of Good Fortune.  Slavophile. Purveyor of artisanal cocktails; enthusiast of related cocktailiana, old and new.

For the last seven years I have worked as a Rare Book Specialist in the ARC (Antiquarian, Rare and Collectible) Department of Better World Books.  In those years, I have personally touched over a million books. The vast majority of these tomes have values so fleeting that most are worth less than the paper they’re printed on.  Of course, when you spend every day swimming in a sea of books, sooner or later you’re bound to find a buried treasure or two.

Through my scouting, I have developed an affinity for a certain type of book.  My favorites are the ones that are entirely devoid of any of trappings that overtly advertise themselves as being special or valuable; i.e. leather, gilt, hand-laid paper, high-point titles.  For example, I would receive very little satisfaction from handling a Gutenberg Bible: its value and importance are already known to me and just about everyone else, leaving little to be discovered.  I much prefer working with books whose value and importance are much more demure and unassuming, only revealing themselves to the depth of my curiosity. They lack personality upon first glance.  If personified, they might be described as dry and slightly abrasive, a bit like an old professor.  One title that illustrates this point particularly well is the Theory and Techniques for Design of Electronic Digital Computers, Volumes II and III, which comprises one half of The Moore School Lectures.

Discovering parts II and III of the exceedingly rare Moore School Lectures was no easy feat.  They were part of a much larger acquisition from another prominent bookseller’s inventory.  As “unsaleables”, every book in this lot carried with it the dubious distinction of being a bookseller’s castoff; not “worth” anything.

Additionally, the literature  of Early Computing is not (yet!) exactly the sexiest genre being collected; it was one I knew very little about.  Von Neumann, Shannon and Turing were not yet on the radar.  The original Moore School Lectures were printed as mimeographs.  I was instantly drawn in by the plainness of their appearance.  I had never heard of Eckert and Mauchly, but images of the ENIAC resonated enough for my instincts to inform me that something very interesting was on hand.  A couple of google searches and a phone call to two specialist dealers confirmed these notes to be the literary genesis of the computer age. These books are still waiting for the right savvy buyer, and are listed for around $13K for the pair.

What is the most unassuming, yet valuable, book you’ve ever seen?

2 Comments

  1. Ann Browning says:

    Dear Ryan, As a teenager I was looking at houses my parents viewed to buy, when I found a whole box of children’s books in a garage. They included many old British favorites, and also an almost complete set of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books! I was a speedreader, and my folks were looking at several houses on the street, so I sat and read. I BEGGED them to buy the house so I could claim the books, but they were unimpressed. When I think of what those books would be worth today . . . Ah well, at least I have the memory. It feels, I think, as Schliemann’s wife must have felt when she posed wearing the gold of Troy.

  2. KEN KINEALY says:

    BEFORE I EMIGRATED TO AUSTRALIA, FROM ENGLAND ,I HAD A BOOK THAT DESCRIBED JOURNEYS BY ROAD , ABOUT ENGLAND AND SCOTLAND WITH THE RELEVANT LINEAR MAP ON THE NEXT PAGE
    WHEN IN AUSTRALIA I ASKED MY PARENTS ,TO SEND IT TO ME, BOOKS
    WERE NOT THEIR INTEREST . SO I HAVE ALWAYS WONDERED AB OUT IT !

    WOULD ANYONE KNOW ABOUT THIS

    CHEERS KEN KINEALY KKTEK@TPG.COM.AU

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