Rare Book Week and the Printed Word

Celebrating rare booksAs Melbourne celebrates Rare Book Week and the value of the printed word, I start to think about the demise of the traditional (paper) book and wonder what it all means.

Like the demise of the pen before it (replaced by typewriters and then computers) we won’t see a total replacement of the paper book. However, just as we see less and less handwriting in the digital age we are likely to see fewer and fewer books printed.

What does this mean? I don’t think anyone really knows where it’s all going – but if fewer books are produced, does that mean that contemporary printed books will become rarer and hence more valuable?

Like some of the classic publications celebrated in Rare Book Week, perhaps a few hundred or thousand printed books will become a standard print run, or even fewer if they are only printed on demand. This will inevitably lead to extra value being added to those editions at the point of production, and as time goes by.
As a historical document, the medium is just as important as the words themselves. Rarity adds value, but specks of dust between the pages of a centuries old book tell as much of a story as the narrative within. Imagine finding one of Jane Austen’s hairs inside a personal journal? Which is more valuable, the words or the hair – or do they work together to form something unique and immensely valuable?

There are millions of copies of Shakespeare’s works in the world. Many selling for 50 cents or less. So, the words have little monetary value. However, a book by Shakespeare published at the time of Shakespeare, or a rare edition from the 1800s is a very different story, despite the words being the same.

It’s an interesting thought. I don’t believe that digital books will ever hold the sentimental value of their printed ancestors. I’m not sure that an e-book digitally signed by the author will ever fetch a million dollars at auction.

Interesting times we live in, but perhaps not the end of the printed word. Perhaps we have ventured past the glut and maybe its value will grow again as it becomes rarer and saved for special occasions.

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