Never mind the Morlocks. For a book lover, the most chilling scene in the 1960 screen adaptation of "The Time Machine" is the one in which the Time Traveler is taken to the decrepit library of the Eloi race. "I can learn all I want about you from books," he exults. But when he picks up one of the neglected tomes, it crumbles to dust in his hands. "Yes," he states ruefully, "they do tell me all about you."
We treasure our books, not just the words themselves that in this increasingly digital age can be downloaded to a Kindle or iPad, but physical books that have heft and such sensorial pleasures as pages to eagerly turn or compelling dust jackets that fire the imagination and stoke the anticipation of reading. But it is the personal connection readers have with books that make them such a meaningful and enduring gift, no matter the season.
"My wife and I were given Kindles, and I could not get myself to turn the damn thing on," laughed Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Luis Urrea. "I'd much rather haul around a book. A book is a beautiful thing, a sacred thing. That was my pathway out of despair and poverty and being trapped in the underbelly of the barrio. Without being under the blanket with a Ray Bradbury book and a flashlight, I never would have been a writer."
First editions and rare books are the highest form of book gift giving. The winter holiday season sees a spike in rare book sales, but they are also popular Valentine's Day, graduation, wedding, anniversary and christening gifts, rare book sellers note.
"You have a relationship with a book," said Tom Joyce, a partner in the Chicago Rare Books Center in Evanston, "particularly a first edition. You're seeing the book as it first appeared and the way people first saw it and related to it."
"There is something totemic about holding a first edition in your hands," said Justin McShea, a bookseller with Bauman Rare Books. "As the digital age progresses, books are becoming more and more exotic. People have a stronger affinity for the first appearance of the great books that charted the course of civilization."
If that sounds too tony, Judith Lowry, a partner in New York-based Argosy Book Store, which is approaching its 90th anniversary, offers that buying rare books or first editions is much more universal now than in years past when it was considered an esoteric pursuit conducted by "old men in tweed jackets smoking pipes, collecting Wordsworth and Shelley."
One of the beauties of rare books, said Tom Congalton, owner of Between the Covers Rare Books, in New Jersey, is that the field is so wide. There is nostalgia in handling the original artifact of something that means a lot to you, whether it's a children's book you grew up with a book that influenced you later in life or a book that was tied to a special moment in time.
"When my daughter was born, I was given a book by Rockwell Kent," said Susan Benne, executive director of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America. "I just love the thing. It's lushly illustrated and absolutely beautiful. Every time I open the book, it takes me back to that time and I think about the people who gave it to me."
As with other collectibles, it is the high prices that some first editions fetch that get the most press. The most requested classic books include F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind," Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," J. D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" and Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises." As the old joke goes, if you have to ask how much they cost, you probably can't afford it.
But prices range. At Chicago Rare Books Center, Nancy Drew fans can find first editions of some of her empowering adventures for as little as $35, while a first edition of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" is selling for $200.
What determines price? As with anything else, it's driven in part by supply and demand. It's not just a question of rarity, Congalton points out. "People collect a book because they want it, not just because it's rare. There may be a sermon by some 19th century preacher. Objectively, that's rare, but nobody wants it."
Conversely, it would take magic indeed to find one of the extremely rare U.K. hardcover first edition first printings of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone." The initial print run of J.K. Rowling's debut novel — she was unknown when the first Harry Potter book was released under its original title in 1997 — was only 500, 300 of which were distributed to libraries. One of these rare copies sells for tens of thousands of dollars.
Another primary factor in determining price is condition and whether it still retains all the book's elements (the dust jacket, for example). Congalton related fielding a request from "a famous film star" who wanted a first edition of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" to give as a gift. "I had one beautiful copy for $15,000, a really nice one for $7,500 and one for $1,500 that the owner had written 'first edition' on the title page," he said. The star took the latter.
How can buyers be sure the book they are buying really is a first edition and is priced fairly? The Internet has been a boon for research and transparency, but the obvious answer is to deal with a reputable book dealer with experience.
One place to start is the ABAA's website, abaa.org, which offers a directory of member rare bookstores that can be searched by city. The booksellers, Benne noted, are vetted and must adhere to a code of ethics. You can also search the site for a specific title. A recent search for Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" yielded several available first editions from stores across the country at prices ranging from $350 to $7,900.
When it comes to giving a first edition as a gift, it should be the thought that counts, and not the book's potential worth as an investment.
"We don't sell our books as investments," said McShea, of Bauman Rare Books, "but at the end of the day, they really are investments. The rare book market is very conservative and prices have been trending upward slowly but surely for years. If you are looking to put together a collection and sell it and get rich, it really doesn't work that way."