By Roger Barbee
My friend Druin Burch lives in England. He practices medicine in Oxford and lives in a lovely Cotswold village near there. We met when he and I were employees in the same program of study for American high school students in Oxford. We have been friends for 15 to 20 years, and the bond that brought us together was our mutual love of and appreciation for literature.
Over the years we have had many discussions and debates about books. One of our first debates was the issue of unmarked books and their value. I argued that a book should be valued by how pristine its condition is - the cleaner the better, I argued. Druin countered that a book was made better by a heart-felt inscription on its flyleaf, and the marginal left by a reader was a sign of the book's worth. Recently I have had reason to see better his side of the debate.
I have a modest collection of first edition books. Like many other interests, book collecting can be fun and profitable. A book can be valuable even if not old - for instance, some dealers will sell you a signed, fine first edition of Tinkers for $2,000 that was printed in 2010.
A book's value is determined by many factors, but one thing that will make a book less valuable is an inscription by someone other than the author and markings in its pages. To be of most value, a book must be in pristine condition and also have a pristine dust jacket. If signed by the author, it is usually even more valuable. So, over the years I have argued for being careful about inscribing books. Druin would argue that some books inscribed to a friend from a friend are not diminished in value but given more value because of the inscription. For him, certain marks give a book even more history.
Earlier this summer I was re-reading the collected letters of John Keats, the Romantic poet. The book I have is hardback, printed in 1935, and has no dust jacket. It is a great reading copy. On the front flyleaf is a previous owner's name, Ernest Nevin Dilworth, written in beautiful cursive with a blue ink pen. As I was reading the book, I noticed on a page two minute pencil dots in the margin. On closer inspection, I realized that this was the way the earlier reader was marking favorite passages. I then began to look for more of his marks as I progressed through the book.
As often is the case, the more I looked, the more I saw. As I continued reading Keats' letters, I began to be almost as interested in what Dilworth marked as I was in the text. I then became curious about Mr. Ernest Nevin Dilworth, and upon doing a bit of Internet searching, found that he was a teacher of English at Lehigh University. With this knowledge, I came to better understand Druin's point.
Both Druin and I understand that one does not mark in any way a book of value. Last summer when we visited England, I took Druin two books. One was a signed first edition of "A Month in the Country" by J. L. Carr, one of Druin's favorite novels. The other was my reading copy of Loren Eiseley's "All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life," a fine autobiography of the famous American scientist, and a book I thought Druin would enjoy. One he put on a safe bookshelf because of its worth, the other he read, enjoyed, and passed on to Richard Holmes, the English biographer, to enjoy. In my life there are a few of the former books, but many of the latter.
When I finished reading Keats' letters and enjoying Dilworth's marks, I remembered a blue paperback copy of Keats' letters that I had once owned. Druin gave it to me one August when I left Oxford. I remember sitting on the bus just as it was leaving for the airport, and Druin came running. He searched the windows for me and upon seeing me, he came to the window and handed me the blue paperback. We said our goodbye through the open window, and on the plane I opened the book to begin reading the letters because Druin had told me how good they were. But I did not begin the letters because I was stopped by Druin's lovely inscription. Sadly, that copy has disappeared in my travels, something I deeply regret. It was just a blue paperback of Keats' collected letters, but the inscription gave the book great history and value for me.
Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.