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Antiques Roadshow Primer: The Introductory Guide to Antiques and Collectibles from the Most-Watched Series on PBSby Carol Prisant
from Chapter Ten
BOOKS AND MANUSCRIPTS
This chapter is about nothing less than the accumulated intellectual and political history of mankind, but don't let that intimidate you. It's in collectible form, of course, which makes it palatable, accessible, and even--trust me, now--fun.
And as with all the excellent objects in this volume, you'll discover in this chapter that the closer your books and documents have been to those who possess genius, courage, and power, the rarer, more interesting, and collectible they become.
Take books, for example. Victorian critic John Ruskin wrote, "All books are divisible into two classes, the books of the hour and the books of all time." And though he made this statement in 1865, the modern world of book collecting is, in fact, still conveniently divided into Ruskin's two categories: antique books and modern first editions. There is a third and extensive category of entirely noncollectible books, however, called "reading copies." These are the beach books, nightstand books, and bathtub books that are bought for no other reason than to be read.
The antique books are Ruskin's "books of all time"--the Dantes, Shakespeares, Spensers, Keatses, and Melvilles of literature, the Darwins, Vesaliuses, Ben Franklins, and Captain Cooks of science and exploration. This field embraces works by Jane Austen, Umberto Eco, Mark Twain, and James Joyce (for "classics" needn't be from antiquity) and the world of children's books. Treasures such as The Wind in the Willows, Treasure Island, and Winnie-the-Pooh actually touch on a second dimension of books. For not only is the text of the book an integral part of our universal and individual consciousness; the book itself is also often a beautiful object. Its covers and narratives may be exquisitely illustrated. Its pages can be handsomely bound in morocco leather and gold leaf. Its paper may be handmade. Its binding can be set with precious gems or clasped in gold. All of this, from the collectibles standpoint, potentially makes books doubly valuable: precious as objects and as repositories of human wisdom.
Modern first editions can be both beautiful objects and literary treasures, despite the fact that they are merely popular books--"books of the hour"--whose ascendancy to "classic" heights is still in doubt if even possible. It's rather unlikely that anyone will ever regard the 1993 first edition of John Grisham's first book, A Time to Kill (published by Wynwood) as a literary classic, but it did bring four figures at an auction recently. On the other hand, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, John Updike's Rabbit, Run, and Patrick O'Brien's Master and Commander are far more likely to last beyond the current "hour." With this in mind, collectors of modern first editions mine our very recent past and bet, a bit, on the future.
Manuscripts are a more spontaneous record and far more revealing than most books. The most popular type of manuscript is the handwritten letter, through which we can gain insight into the thought processes and personalities of famous people--just the kind of thing devotees of Lincoln, Napoleon, or Mozart hunger for. While today we can document our geniuses on videotape--study every nuance of facial expression, hear the timbre of their voices, note the color of their eyes--all we will ever have to hint at the most private thought of the legendary men and women who changed and made our world is their letters. Other types of documents, such as deeds, wills and records of court proceedings, are also manuscripts, which illuminate history in less personal but often surprisingly revealing ways. But, even if we can't truly know a man or his era, in compiling a paper trail we can still begin to puzzle out our past. It wasn't until the twentieth century, after all, that print technology and photography combined to give us comprehensive and reliable historical documents. Despite these undeniable advantages--our videotapes and scanners--we certainly won't see ourselves clearly until much more time has passed.
Excerpted from Antiques Roadshow Primer
Copyright c 1999 by WGBH Educational Foundation.
Reprinted with permission by Workman Publishing.
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