This weekend I had a new experience: bidding on Ebay for an antiquarian book. One of my graduate students informed me that a book by the eighteenth-century author, Susanna Rowson, was for sale on Ebay. I was amazed! True, Rowson is not well known outside of academic circles and, as a result, does not have the cultural cache of her contemporaries Benjamin Franklin, Washington Irving, or others. But, surely an eighteenth-century book – any eighteenth-century book! – has a more rarified existence than to be bid upon by the likes of me.
While I have read many eighteenth-century books – and handled a few in special collections or archives – I don’t own any. (I only own modern reproductions.) Nor do I have much experience with antiquarian books or booksellers, despite the historical focus of my research. This is another piece of evidence to support Tim Morris’ recent statement that being a professor is a working-class job: once upon a time, there may have been academics who could afford to indulge in collecting old books, but I suspect those days are over. Few of us have those floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with leather-bound, antique books that Hollywood likes to portray as the norm for academics. (Not to mention the smoking jackets, pipes, and personal valets that seem to go along with them.)
Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist the chance to possess a book by an author who I’ve been studying intently over the past few years. So, with equal parts trepidation and excitement, I entered the bidding …
Unfortunately, this anecdote does not end triumphantly for me. I was significantly outbid and will not be the owner of Rowson’s Mentoria, circa 1794. However, the selling price of $400 – while too rich for me – is surprisingly low, compared to other books from the same time period. (The same Ebay bookseller sells many works from the same period or earlier, ranging from $9,000 to $35,000.)
This experience made me think, though, about the curious gap in our culture between those who study antiquarian books and those who buy/own them. While it may be true that the new owner of Rowson’s Mentoria is another Rowson-mad scholar like myself (and I certainly hope s/he is!), I am willing to bet that it was instead a collector, maybe even another bookseller, who doesn’t really know who she was or why many of us are so inspired by her life and writing. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a scholarship that enabled scholars to “own” (permanently or temporarily) the materials on which they work? The system would be similar to the one in place for virtuoso violinists that sponsors their access to exquisite Stradivariuses. As I understand it, this system is built around the premise that a talented violinist deserves the best possible instrument on which to play, and that the violin itself deserves to be played – indeed, was designed to be played – by the most talented musician that can be found. Not to belabor this comparison, but surely books are similar? Don’t they deserve to be in the possession of the readers who will really appreciate them?
Or … I guess that is what libraries are for.
— Desiree Henderson