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A Gentleman’s Guide to Collecting Books

Earlier this year we covered the joys and basic how-tos of starting a collection. It’s truly an everyman’s hobby. If you’re a gentleman reader — and you should be — then there is perhaps no better collection to amass than a hearty library of manly tomes. With this post I’d like to teach you how to expand your library with a purposeful book collection and help it achieve a new standard of awesomeness.

But first, some background. The personal library has a long, rich history of manliness. It was a standard feature in homes from the 17th through the 20th centuries. For the upper class, the library was the perfect place for managing an estate and hanging out with other gentlemen (usually with a few drinks and cigars). And for the working man, a personal library of even just a few bookshelves was a great escape after a hard day’s work, as well as a potential tool for moving on up the economic ranks.

[amazon asin=B00006IBB3&template=*lrc ad (left)]Wealthy gentlemen of former generations would typically collect complete sets of classic writers (“The Complete Works of Dickens” for example), standout books in the advancement of civilization (the Great Books), and books related to their personal areas of interest or occupation. The same standard titles could be expected in any gentleman’s library, which meant, with some notable exceptions, that the average collection was kind of boring. You could find variations on the same library in any wealthy estate in America or Britain.

The working man’s library, however, was much more focused and interesting. Limited budgets meant that books were a luxury expense and could only be bought for specific aims or for a deep and abiding passion for a particular work. As a result, a working man’s library was a fascinating look into their life, even if it was ostensibly much less impressive.

All men should build a general library like that pictured above. We should have ready access to the important books of our lives. What books would you take with you to a shack in the Australian bush? Those are the books you should buy. You don’t need any guidance here; just buy the books you love. Get them in the format you like best. Forget about re-selling them. Build the library to use it. Write in the books. Toss them in your rucksack or in the backseat of your car when you’re on a road trip. Be reckless with their condition. And if you prefer ebooks, remember that buying physical copies of your favorite books increases your antifragility.

Book collecting, however, is another beast. You can go beyond the formation of a general library to assemble a purposeful, carefully built book collection united around a central theme. And here is where we separate the [amazon asin=B000NPONBO&template=*lrc ad (right)]book collectors from the rest of the pack.

Collectors are hunters who chase their query through the dusty shelves of antiquarian bookshops. (Or, less poetically, across the blinking screens of their computers.) They build focused collections with particular goals in mind. Aesthetics, interests, profit, charity, work, pleasure, scholarly pursuits, pure awesomeness, and greed are all reasons that men collect books. For example, I built one small collection for its aesthetics on the bookshelf, another small collection to have all the works of a hard-to-find author, another collection purely out of interest in the material, and another just to make a buck on later.

Regardless of the motivation, however, any book collection worth its salt must be united by an easily identifiable central theme.

A.W. Pollard wrote of book collecting in his famous essay in the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1911):

“In the modern private collection, the need for a central idea must be fully recognized. Neither the collector nor the curator can be content to keep a mere curiosity shop. It is the collector’s business to illustrate his central idea by his choice of examples, by the care with which he describes them and the skill with which they are arranged.”

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