It's been long rumored that print is dead — the Internet its murderer.
But after a trip to the California International Antiquarian Book Fair at the Pasadena Convention Center last weekend, I'm happy to report the rumors aren't true. The future of the printed word isn't dead, it's undead — resigned to a vampiric, sun-free existence in a prenaturally lit crypt.
Allow me to explain.
The Antiquarian Book Fair, if you missed it, is among the largest gatherings of rare book vendors and collectors in the world. My introduction to the event was a collector's panel discussion, headed by the L.A. Times' Patt Morrison, who asked prolific collector, movie producer and fellow panelist Tony Bill if he actually reads his books.
“Yes,” Bill replied after a brief pause — with the caveat that it would require several lifetimes for a person to read every book in his immense collection.
If the thought of buying thousands of books that you have no intention of ever reading sounds a bit curious, keep in mind that many of the titles we're talking about — like the 1475 Lucas Brandis Rudeimentum novitorum, containing some of the original printed maps in human history — are worth in excess of a million dollars. These aren't meant for the Tuesday night book club. Nor, for fear of UV damage, are many of them ever meant to really see the light of day.
“Books are judged to be valuable based on several criteria,” explained Roger Gozdecki, proprietor of Anthology Rare Books in Pasadena, who had his collection of California literature and history on display at the event. “Collectors are generally looking the for first-edition print of books that are important or of cultural significance.”
As an example, Gozdecki pulls out the first-edition print of a map made by John Fremont during his 1844 journey to California — six years before it achieved statehood.
“This is one of the most important maps in the history of Western expansion,” Gozdecki explained, careful to extract the map from its jacket, but not unfold it, for fear of a tear. “When gold was discovered three years after its publication, this was the only reliable map of California in existence. It's a primer in manifest destiny.”
On a less colonial note, Gozdecki also showed me a first-edition copy of what in my estimation is the only known printing of Jack Kerouac's “On the Road” that isn't dog-eared and underlined to the point of obsession by an existentially frustrated suburban teenager.
Collectors have other, more specialized, criteria for determining value. Glendale's Jeff Weber Rare Books exhibited several rare and fore-edge books — whose pages, when fanned out, reveal remarkable original paintings. Like in the art world, provenance is becoming increasingly popular in the world of rare book collecting. A book owned by an individual of note draws more interest than your average Joe owner. Hence, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” actress Sarah Michelle Gellar's collection of rare children's books was a major draw at the event.
I personally preferred Beverly Hills retailer Bilioctopus displaying its $65,000 print of Jane Austen's “Sense and Sensibility” directly in front of a movie poster of Princess Leia in her iconic metal bikini, signed by actress Carrie Fischer. Now that's some collecting!
So what are the takeaways from this weekend's event? The publishing industry as we know it may one day cease to exist. Tablet devices and laptops will soon be most people's content delivery vehicle of choice.
But that won't mean the end of the printed word. All publishers have to do is let Sarah Michelle Gellar paint the fore-edge of a few hundred first-edition releases, bury them in the sand for a century or two, and books will live forever.
MATTHEW FLEISCHER is a Glendale-based journalist. His work has appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine and LA Weekly.