17 May 2010

From the Public Library to Mine

There will be some unpleasantness.

This past week I spent a few hours volunteering at the semiannual St Marys Public Library book sale. 'Twas good work for a worthy cause. No gems, I'm afraid, though there were many deals to be had. And then there were the unwanted books that were shed in the library's most recent cull. Fifty cents. There were few takers.

Library discards are great for reading in the bath, at the beach or while eating spaghetti, but unless particularly rare they have no place in a decent private library. I count the number of discards I own on one hand: there's a British first of Flappers and Philosophers, a Canadian first of Morley Callaghan's 1929 A Native Argosy, a signed first of Radclyffe Hall's The Master of the House and that inscribed copy of Laure Conan's The Master Motive. These last two come from Montreal's sadly missed Fraser-Hickson Library. Neither book cost more than fifty cents. I'd have gladly paid more.

My most recent ex-library acquisition, Edwin Lanham's 1937 novel Banner at Daybreak, was bought six years ago for use in researching the forthcoming Glassco biography. A veteran of the Butte County Free Library, it was at some point defaced by a pessimistic, Old Testament teetotaler.

That's right, a pessimistic,

Old Testament


Mercifully, ex-library books are a pretty rare sight in used bookstores, but they do litter the web. Anyone looking to buy a Canadian first of Marian Engel's 1968 debut No Clouds of Glory, as I was yesterday, must take care not to step in the five discards found amongst the 17 copies currently offered online. The most expensive of these comes from a Hamilton bookseller who asks US$50 for something described as "Mild ex-library". "Very Scarce", he adds. Compare this to another, untouched by librarians, listed online for one dollar less: a Fine copy in Fair dust jacket, signed by the author (who died in 1985).

Very Good copies of Engel's novel hover around US$20, roughly the same price being asked by those flogging ex-library copies. "Rebound in sturdy library binding", one vendor says of his discard. Tempting. The cheapest of these library refugees – US$16.95 – is described as follows:
Longman's Canada, Toronto, 1968. Hard Cover [sic]. VERY GOOD+/VERY GOOD- First Edition (stated), 1st Canadian Printing. A gorgeous ex-library copy: exceptionally clean and tight, all pages FINE. DJ in mylar, the ring stain on the front panel is part of the book's graphic design. First novel from this award-winning Canadian author. Written with piercing wit, poignant satire, and eloquence, this book established Marian Engel as an uncommonly gifted writer.
The concluding sales pitch is irritating and ill-advised, but what I really take exception to is the description. "A gorgeous ex-library copy"? Ain't no such thing – but then the same the bookseller uses adjectives like "beautiful", "handsome", "superb", "excellent" and "exceptional" in describing his many other ex-library offerings.

A "VERY GOOD+" book in "VERY GOOD-" dust jacket with "FINE" pages. Are we to assume that the ink on those pages is AS NEW?

Too harsh? Perhaps, but does this really fit anyone's definition of gorgeous?


  1. Right on! An ex library book can never be fine, gorgeous or pretty--the very opposite. They are as ugly and at best unattractive. If they were girls (or boys) you would not ask them to dance...

  2. Agreed, you would not ask them to dance... and you most certainly wouldn't take them home.

  3. Too harsh? Not at all. Can you imagine a dealer in stamps or coins describing them in such a ludicrous manner? Can't figure out why book collecting has attracted so much junk in the internet age. Other long standing collectibles haven't.

  4. A good comparison... and a good question. I'm guessing that the influx of bad booksellers has something to do with the fact that more people read than collect stamps and coins. In other words, the ex-library folks prey on those who aren't collectors.

    I add to this that I've never seen a stamp collection or box of old coins at a yard sale, library sale or church bazaar, where, I'm betting, must of the crummy sellers get their goods. Must say, the thought of turning 50 cents into 50 dollars is appealing.

  5. Awwww, are you the same people who wouldn't adopt a one-eyed cat? :)

    When I go scouring online for an out-of-print book, I do try to avoid ex-library copies for the same reasons you've outlined, but I won't reject them if the alternatives are either out of my price range or non-existent. As long as all the pages are there I'm happy, and I look forward to the marginalia by pessimistic Old Testament teetotalers.

    That said, I haven't had to settle for many ex-library copies, but in the case of Anna Kavan I just didn't have a choice, and I adore those coffee-stained finds as much as any other book.

  6. Can't speak for the others, but I'd probably gravitate toward the one-eyed cat... then spoil it silly.

    I don't think we're all that far apart. I'll embrace an ex-library book when the alternative is too dear. Case in point, that Edwin Lanham novel - which I really needed to read. I was happy to spend US$35 for the ex-library copy; the alternative was a first edition in dust jacket at US$200. Must say, the marginalia was a bonus - and served to entertain during the parts that dragged.

    The term "Bath Crazy", my misreading of the pessimistic Old Testament teetotaler's "Both Crazy", has found a place in the family lexicon.

    (Note: There are now plenty of copies of the Lanham listed online. Cost: US$5.30 to US$85. The law of supply and demand, I suppose.)

  7. Bath crazy! I'll work this into conversation today. :)