Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I used to marvel at the ability of secondhand booksellers (or should that be sellers of secondhand books) to value titles at a glance. How could they know and, more importantly, how could they be so certain that my Tesco 'Bag for Life' of first editions was worthless? I'd been saving these books for years.

After five months in the antiquarian book world, I can now see how it all works. I don't always know which books are worth a fortune, but I can spot the crap a mile away.

If you're hanging on to any of the following books, don't even bother giving them to your local charity shop:

  • Any copy of Little Women published after 1880
  • English dictionaries
  • Book club editions
  • The Friendship Book (I'm assuming that readers of this blog won't have a copy)
  • Reach for the Sky, by Paul Brickell
  • All gardening books
  • The Bible
  • All books about the Royal family
  • Complete works of Shakespeare
  • Anything by J B Priestley
  • The plays of George Bernard Shaw
  • The Ascent of Everest, by John Hunt and Sir Edmund Hillary
  • Field guides to birds of Britain
  • All cookery books published after 1945
  • Victorian poetry, particularly Longfellow
  • All encyclopaedias
  • Novels by 'angry young men' like John Braine
  • Everything published by the AA and Reader's Digest
  • All Atlases published after 1918
  • Pelican paperbacks
  • The Pilgrim's Progress
  • Most books about classical music
  • Humour titles from the 1950s
  • Enid Blyton paperbacks
  • Art books with black and white reproductions of paintings
All worthless. Gather the kindling and build the fire! (But not the Bibles - we'll get letters)

Last week's local paper's classified ads section had several books for sale. One was a 1936 road atlas, on sale for £25. I presume that the instigators of this advertisement were operating on the premise that if it's old, it's worth something. But this isn't the case. You can buy a beautiful 1850s collection of Wordsworth poems for under a tenner. It's all about supply and demand.

I know that some people have reservations about destroying any book, but by throwing out the chaff, I'm able to save the wheat. It's literary eugenics (but not in a sinister, neo-Nazi way).

Since April, my project has saved 10,000 books from landfill sites, but it has also condemned at least 20,000 to the big recycling machine. If that bothers you, imagine a future where people are destroying thousands of Dan Brown novels each day, but rescuing first editions of Richard Yates and John Fante.

That can't be bad.


JRSM said...

A depressing list. I'm surprised there aren't more takers for Pelicans, but I suppose they were printed in vast quantities.

Anonymous said...

You are now officially an expert! And in that light, rather like pestering a doctor can I ask are we right as a family to have collections of Rupert the Bear annuals? From scribbled on ones in the fifties to quite nice ones in the seventies. Normally I wouldn't mind, but to be honest I do find Rupert quite irritating and do-gooderish.

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Steerforth said...

It would be better if you had nice 1950s copies and tatty 1970s ones.

Lucille said...

I have a secondhand book seller next door to a charity shop which is time-saving.

John Self said...

Ah, The Friendship Book of Francis Gay. My granny used to have a stash of these. I think he still has a column in the Sunday Post (which used to be called 'Seven Days Hard by Francis Gay' - hurhurhur), so I'm guessing he doesn't really exist and is a gestalt entity, or a cryogenically frozen head stored under the hills of Dumfriesshire, kept in business only to enable Sunday Post readers to complain about the loss of that lovely innocent word 'gay' to the language.

John Self said...

For anyone unfamiliar with Francis Gay's harrowing brand of iconoclasm, here's his latest from the Sunday Post* - nice to see how he promotes the benefits of letters over email, and then provides an email address to send your thoughts in.

* "Scotland will never be free until the last minister is throttled with the last copy of the Sunday Post" - Tom Nairn

JRSM said...

I followed John's link, and now I feel strangely wholesome. I don't like it.

Grey Area said...

oddly enough - I have both 'Reach For The Sky' - and a large collection of Angry Young man novels.....

I followed the link to Frances Gay, I now feel an overwhelming urge to go outside and commit an act of random violence.

Anonymous said...

Yes...that link. This is the trouble with primary school teachers today. No ambition/ruthless streaks.

But the one that inspired Fiona the most came from Caitlin. Her wish flag, decorated with felt tip pictures of loved ones, read, “I wish for family, friends and love. If I have these I’ll never need anything else!”

In the staff room later Fiona couldn’t find anyone who disagreed. And I’m not going to either!

Brian Busby said...

I'm with JRSM, it's all a bit depressing. Of course, time changes everything. I'm reminded of the late George Woodcock's observation that Decadent works were sold on Charing Cross Road for next to nothing in the thirties. Will a similar rise be experienced by the once angry, once young men? I have my doubts.

Steerforth said...

I have my doubts too.

Re: Francis Gay - I followed the link and was reminded of an old lady who said to me "People don't like nice things any more."

simmone said...

hello - I worked for a while at a second hand bookshop in notting hill gate famed for its 10p basement - most of your list wouldn't have made it through the door! Locally there's a couple doing interesting things with dumped books - see http://www.reboundbooks.net/
but I can't decide if I like or hate the idea ... imagine walking past and seeing say, myron brinig's flutter of an eyelid turned into a datebook.