You're looking at a JPEG of the title page of what later this month will become the most valuable printed book ever, surpassing Gutenberg Bibles, Shakespeare First Folios, and Audubon's Birds of North America. It's the rarest of the rare—a first edition of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in British North America. A copy is being auctioned at Sotheby's on November 26th. It's the first time the book has come up at auction in 66 years. The low end of the auction estimates is $15 million. (Yale University got its copy in 1947 for $151,000, an astronomical sum for a book at the time.)
If the bidding hits $30.5 million, which it could, this Bay Psalm Book would then become not just the most valuable printed book but the most valuable paper document on earth, exceeding the $30+ million that Bill Gates paid in 1994 for Leonardo Da Vinci's Codex Leicester, a handwritten journal of the great humanist's scientific notes and inquiries.
Printed in 1640, in Cambridge, near Boston, Massachusetts, my Pilgrim ancestors in Plymouth would certainly have known the psalter. Seventeen hundred copies were printed; 11 survive. The copy to be auctioned is the property of Old South Church in Boston...which also has another one, which won't be sold. (At one time Old South Church owned five of the 11 surviving copies!) The idea of finding a previously unknown Bay Psalm Book is the Holy Grail for rare book dealers and collectors, and has been central to the plots of several novels, including Will Harriss's 1983 mystery The Bay Psalm Book Murder.
Back at the ranch house
Meanwhile, at sprawling TOP World Headquarters in idyllic Waukesha, Wisconsin, I've cycled onward in my e-reader evolution, having just acquisitioned the base model of the new iPad Air. There's nothing wrong with my iPad2 except I've been afraid it's going to attack me. I read in bed at night, with the iPad perched atop a pillow on my chest. I'm uncomfortably aware that if I doze off while reading, the iPad could easily pitch forward and hit me in the nose or the teeth. I'm hoping the new, lighter iPad will help limit the damage; I'm ugly enough as it is without a missing front tooth.
E-readers have required some reshuffling of mental concepts held dear. I've always (since I was small) loved not only books but the idea of libraries. I think of them classically and conservatively, as static collections, brought to a point of perfection and then enduring. The supreme example of this in the world is possibly the Samuel Pepys Library at Magdalene College Cambridge. Samuel must have suffered terribly from OCD; the identical cases were custom-made, and the specially-bound books are ranged not only by subject but by size. This has never been the state of my own collection of books, which is a living, breathing thing, expanding and contracting, messy and sprawling, always in some parlous limbo between partial organization and total disorganization.
Being a man of small means, the idea of a so-called "cabinet collection" has long had a strong appeal to me. A cabinet collection is a miniature library—small enough to fit into a cabinet, or at least a single bookcase or a limited number of them. That idea made sense when books were more precious and relatively more expensive than they are now. Part of the idea is that it should make up in quality and selection what it obviously must lack in quantity.
The e-reader seems to encourage a different concept altogether: of books as consumables. That is, buy one, read it, move on. You can keep it, but there's no need. It's in the cloud. If you need it again, go get it again. There's no reason to archive it in physical form on premises.
In a way, these two conceptions are just opposite each other: the cabinet collection, a small, well-curated collection of high-quality printed books, possessed; and e-reader books, ephemeral by definition, books to be ingested like meals and then replenished by the next, never even granted a physical form.
Gradually, more and more of my reading has become electronic. I've had two Kindles and now two iPads. Although the lastest Kindle Paperwhite in its neat case is the most elegant of the devices for reading, six inches tall and light and easily portable, I've come to prefer the iPad. I'm not really sure why; I just like reading on it better. (Amazon does make its own mini-tablet.) I would say I do 85% of my book reading now, or even 90%, on e-readers as opposed to paper books.
There's one great advantage to digital cameras that keeps me from going back to film: high ISO capability. And there's one great advantage to digital e-readers that printed books can't compete with: variable type size. Every book on the iPad Air is a large print book if I want it to be. It's very nice to be able to pick the most comfortable type size.
The iPad Air has every bit of that "latest and greatest" glow that electronic devices have when they're new. It's so lovely I sometimes find myself just holding it, gazing at its new "Retina" screen in admiration. For the first time I'm interested to see what a portfolio of photographs would look like in this format. Type is very crisp and smooth.
I'm sure this glow will fade in a few years. But by then there will be a replacement. Meanwhile, I've deaccessioned more than 30 boxes of paper books in the three years since I first wrote about the Kindle.
Oddly, though, although these two ideas—the cabinet collection and e-books—are opposites, the one might actually enable the other. Of course I've focused my buying of paper books more on my specialty since e-books entered my life, but the other thing I've done is to buy a few nice books. Only a very few so far, but, added to the few "good" books I've had for a long time, I now have what might be called the kernal or the nucleus of a cabinet collection—not a whole case full of very nice books, but one short shelf of them.
Who knows? With most of my reading now taken over by the iPad, maybe I will have a cabinet collection after all, one day.
It won't include the Bay Psalm Book, of course, but I wouldn't want one anyway—the translations in it are not well thought of and no one uses them any more. It's an historical artifact like any other valuable museum antique, and I'm a reader. But I would like to have The Bay Psalm Book Murder by Will Harriss...
...But only if I could get it for the iPad. And you can't. It's not available. You'd have to go to Abebooks.com and buy a paper copy. Too bad; I'd like to read that.
"Open Mike" is a library of off-topic ramblings by Yr. Hmbl. Ed. that appears on TOP on certain Sundays.
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Geoff Wittig: "To my mind, 'e-books' and actual printed books have as little in common with each other as JPEGs and physical prints. Less, really, as the type and formatting of an e-book is entirely 'virtual' and contingent, while the physical reality of an actual book is a very large part of its artistic virtue.
"I probably own (not really sure, to be honest) four copies of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, each of which serves a different purpose. One is a cheap paperback reading copy that probably should be tossed in the trash, but it sometimes bounces around in the trunk of the car in case I need something to read for those 15 minute bits of slack time. Another is the quite nice yet inexpensive 'Everyman's Library' version which reproduces the lovely typography and woodcuts of the Grabhorn Brothers' 1930 limited edition in more portable format. And I actually own a copy of the Grabhorn edition. It's the most expensive book I possess, much too big for casual reading, but flat-out gorgeous with hand-made paper, deep letterpress impressions and original woodcuts. It's a genuine work of art that conveys Whitman's poetry with an added layer of meaning of its own. The e-book version by comparison is just a cloud of electrons, one that evaporates the moment the source decides you no longer merit access."
robert e (partial comment): "I had to laugh—I've been struck in the face, neck or shoulders by iPhones, a Kindle and a Nexus 7 when using them (including to read books) while lying on my back...."
Michael Perini: "The iPad Retina is a really fine portfolio display device. I highly recommend an app called Portfolio, which allows a fair degree of customization of appearance and individual galleries against simple backgrounds. It comes with a free app for your Mac called 'Portfolio Loader' which can be pointed to any folder on your Mac, to Wirelessly transfer the files, which is a huge benefit.
"I size JPEGs to fit within 2048x2048 to use all the resolution of the display. (You can make them bigger so that you can pinch and expand, but I choose not to do that so that pictures display as intended.) There are other portfolio apps that I have not tried, so I can't say Portfolio is the best, but I am quite pleased with it. Having selections of favorite images so beautifully displayed (in any grouping or sequence you choose) on such an easily portable device is like travelling with old friends. Not as good as holding a real paper print in your hands, but a strong second place."
Steve Jacob (partial comment): "It took me about a week to get used to the [Kindle] screen and find a font size that worked. It also takes a period of psychological adjustment.
"I like books. I always have. But the books that I consider as 'more than just their content' are those illustrated references (including photo books of course) that I have collected over the years, and some nicely bound and rare hardback classics. For paperback novels it's not the book that matters, but the story. I now actually prefer reading novels electronically."
Mike replies: Your comment about the "period of psychological adjustment" is so true. Well said.
Mike D: "It's not just e-readers that can assault you. I once managed to pull a muscle carelessly removing Michel Frizot's A New History of Photography from the bookshelf. It's one big and heavy mother of a book!"
Curmudgeon-in-training: "Rumour has it the Google Guys (tm) will snap up the Psalm Book, slice its spine off, jam it into a sheet feeder, scan it, OCR it and post it on Google Books (tm). Just sayin'...."