By Tony Ryan
Most of us have read a few difficult books in our time, perhaps pondered their meaning and then displayed them prominently on our bookshelves as cultural trophies. We may have dropped Finnegans Wake, To the Lighthouse or Crime and Punishment into conversation after assiduously plodding our way through them (or parts of them). But the books I leave conspicuously on my coffee table are difficult in another sense: they were hard to obtain. Rare books, out-of-print books, ‘antiquarian’ books—they reward the intrepid reader with delayed and therefore heightened gratification.
Sure, James Joyce may have reshaped the form of fiction with Ulysses, and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels may be dazzling in their psychological realism, but these books are easily found, in multiple editions with various covers, online or in a bricks-and-mortar bookshop. They don’t take much to hunt down, but this is an overlooked aspect of the book lover’s quest. I like a book that makes you really earn the read, as opposed to one that gives itself up easily in rows of carefully arranged, just-printed displays in bookstore windows.
Take Miles Franklin’s biography of the Australian author Joseph Furphy, for example. I’d been aware of its existence a full decade, having asked for it at countless bookshops and googled the heck out of it, to no avail. Then one day, in a second-hand bookshop adjacent to the main square of a town in country Victoria, I asked again. And I received. As soon as I mentioned Miles Franklin and Joseph Furphy, the bookseller raised an eyebrow, disappeared behind a shelf and re-emerged with a copy of Joseph Furphy: The Legend of A Man and His Book. If I’d been able to download it on an ereader ten years prior, I wouldn’t have been able to sit by a log fire in the evenings on that weekend in the country and flick through the charmingly browning pages of the copy I’d finally obtained.
Is searching for out-of-print books inconvenient? Perhaps. Isn’t it frustrating to delay my gratification in the age of the instant? Yes. But I don’t take part in the hunt purely for the sport: the willingness to spend time searching for a copy of a book is usually fuelled by an intense interest in its subject matter.
For instance, I recently all but gave up on looking for more books about a preoccupation of mine: plants native to the volcanic plains that underlie Melbourne’s north and west. This is a niche subject matter if there ever was one, but one idle afternoon a chance web search revealed Plants of the Merri Merri, a guide to the native flora of my local creek. At $40, it was on the expensive side for a second-hand book. Its yellow cover had been sun-dyed to a sky blue around the spine, likely because it had sat in the window of someone’s study for years, but it was one of the finest reading experiences I’ve had recently, partly because it had eluded me for so long.
Books like these are usually not in mint condition, and many of them come with ‘imperfections’ like a previous owner’s marginalia. But books are functional as well as aesthetic objects. They’re made to be read, and in that process they become dog-eared, grimy and sometimes scribbled on. These signs of use are marks from the sacred process of reading, and they bring with them a sense of community-through-media that feels cosily antiquated in the age of Facebook.
But, of course, as much as I enjoy the thrill of the chase, it should ultimately be followed by the excitement of the find. Toward that end, those searching for a rare book should know about the tools available to them. The digitisation of books and print-on-demand services mean that fewer and fewer books are truly unobtainable, so simply using this information to search the web can yield great results. The National Library of Australia’s online archive, Trove, is a seemingly infinite resource for information of all sorts, including on books. State by state, it lists all libraries and bookshops that hold a given title. The internet more broadly is the tool I most often use when sniffing out a book; the following have all aided one or more of my quests:
A number of Australian bookstores specialise in rare books, including Berkelouw Books, with stores in New South Wales and Queensland. In Melbourne, Kay Craddock’s and Peter Arnold’s stores are among your best bets. There’s even a professional association for antiquarian booksellers in Australia and New Zealand, whose website provides a searchable list of purveyors of out-of-print books.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not immune to the appeal of a new book’s crisp white pages and coffee-stain-free cover, and yes, we all love the way they smell. But, to invert a term used by publishers, a book’s undiscoverability can greatly enhance a reader’s pleasure. So next time you learn about a rare book but have trouble finding it, despair not; in the age of information, even the most obscure book can find a home in your hands.
Tony Ryan is a freelance editor and is soon to graduate from Melbourne University’s publishing program.
Photography Credit: Juan Sissini on Unsplash.