THE SOURCE: "What Is a Rare Book?" by Fred C. Robinson, in The Sewanee Review, Fall 2012.
IN 1623, SEVEN YEARS AFTER William Shakespeare died, two of his friends and fellow actors collected 36 of his plays, half of them never before published, thereby wresting such titles as Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest from oblivion. An original copy of this collection of the Bard's work, known as the First Folio, now has an asking price of nearly $5 million. It is considered a rare book, writes Fred C. Robinson, a librarian of Yale's Elizabethan Club collection of rare books, yet copies are not scarce: 230 are known to exist today. But as is the case for the Gutenberg Bible, printed in the 15 th century and now surviving in 47 copies, the First Folio's "desirability far exceeds its availability."
Rare books' real value, Robinson maintains, is not monetary but historical. Such books provide a window on the emergence of printing and, indeed, the "intellectual founders" of the modern age.
Books published before 1501, called incunabula ("swaddling clothes" in Latin, indicating their arrival during the "infancy of the art of printing"), tell a lot about the cultural history of their countries of origin. Early English printers, for instance, are notable for producing books in the vernacular, not Latin. Pioneer printer William Caxton strove for "the edification of 'simple persones' as much for 'erudicion and lernyng,' " Robinson notes, and this populist bent would become "increasingly important in English intellectual history." Even the typeface used in early books is instructive: Because schools taught children to read gothic type, or black letter, modern scholars infer that pages printed in that font were meant for lay audiences, while texts in roman or italic were for sophisticated readers.
Association copies, rare books containing evidence that they were "associated with an important person," are especially collectible, and getting your hands on one confers more than boasting rights. …