Saturday, February 26, 2011

"I would rather excel in the knowledge of what is excellent, than in the extent of my power and possessions."


A misconception that we encounter on a weekly basis here at the bookstore is this one: if a book is old, it must be expensive. Or rare. Or both.

Week after week, we have to tell customers that that isn't the case. Books have been printed en masse since the 1450s, which makes for 560 years of publishing and millions upon millions of titles. More than 107,000 books were published in the United States alone between 1910–1919. Only a small fraction of those countless books will retain any value after the decades and centuries have gone by. And a book that is old in people terms may not be old in book terms, as Brian is fond of saying.

More often than not, two factors called scarcity and demand affect a book's value more than its age. For example, most people back in the 1800s had schoolbooks--Latin, geography, arithmetic, etc. Many people also saved them, so the used-book market is saturated with them.  The demand for them is negligible, since the information is outdated or just simply dated. We've got a small collection of old schoolbooks at Babbitt's, but the resale value of each book is only around eight or ten dollars. (Which is fine by us, but don't expect $200 for them if you're selling some!)

Which brings me to a couple of new arrivals that I like to call Plutarch's Lives.

These leather-bound books, priced individually as a result of two missing volumes, date from 1822 and contain the lives of famous Greek and Roman citizens, as written by the philosopher and historian Plutarch. Between these particular volumes, you'll find bios on Pericles, Theseus, Romulus, Alexander, Julius Caesar and Cicero. The complete set was comprised of eight books, and each volume here contains two of them. Volume I contains books I and II, while volume III contains books V and VI. (If you want a matching set, volumes II and IV will probably have to be ordered specially through the Internet.) 

Marbled endpapers.

After being in existence for 189 years, both volumes are slightly banged up as you can see from the photos. Volume I has a large signature crack in the middle and several loose pages around the crack, though all pages are present. The previous owners' bookplate is on both pastedowns. Still, these old books are a handsome addition to any bookshelf. 

And fortunately for their buyer (is it you?), these books are also affordable. The two factors we discussed above, scarcity and demand, are aligned against poor Plutarch and his Lives. Plutarch was quite popular up until the 19th and 20th centuries and copies of Lives were heavily printed, which means they're not scarce. As for demand, it has dropped dramatically for Plutarch and other Greek greats within the past century. These factors combined make for an $8 copy of an 1822 book, your choice of volume I or volume III. 

If you like the look of leather spines lining a shelf and want to start a collection of your own, remember . . . buying old, attractive books doesn't have to be expensive.

Title: Plutarch's Lives, Translated from The Original Greek; with Notes Critical and Historical and a Life of Plutarch by John Langhorne, D.D. and William Langhorne, A.M.
Publisher: Samuel Campbell & Son
Year: 1822
Features: Volume I (books I and II), Volume III (books V and VI)
Condition: Fair / Good
Price: $8 apiece


  1. I always compared finding missing volumes the equivalent of filling an inside straight in poker - possible but chancy

  2. If you still have them I'll take one of each. I have a son in law that would love them. What do I have to do?

  3. Hi Dr. Hermann,

    The books are yours. You can pay for the books in person or through Paypal--or even over the phone. If you choose one of the latter two options, we can ship the books to your home or you can pick them up at your convenience. You can contact us at with your preference