Wit and Humor of the Age, a battered old book. The article debates whether it deserves preservation.
Sam Morris

Sam Morris

The Preservation Question

Since we started dealing in used books, we’ve gotten a lot of fascinating donations that have sparked discussion in the store. One, in particular, has led to a debate about the ethics of book preservation. In particular… is it ok to allow a book that has historical value to deteriorate or even be destroyed? Should you preserve a book that is disgusting to your own ethics? Who gets to decide which works have value?

The Book

The book in question is an 1887 printing of a joke book called Wit and Humor of the Age (with a much longer subtitle listed on the picture below) that has one of the authors listed as Mark Twain. The content is very logically laid out, broken into both categories of jokes and subject matter. The outside of the book is well-ornamented, with a snakeskin texture, embossed floral accents, and marbled page edges.

This particular copy is in what we would call “fair” condition, at best. The cover is damaged in the corners, with the fabric pulling away from the boards. There are pencil markings, catalog numbers, stamps, and two different personal library bookplates.  Most of the pages are in good shape, with the exception of an endsheet that has been torn out and some weakened and torn binding toward the front of the book.

That’s all the physical description. What is the content? Is a joke book from 1887 a little racist?

It’s incredibly racist. It’s disparaging toward every imaginable group, with all dialogue from those people written in the worst contrived dialect the authors could come up with. There are two separate chapters of jokes insulting the Irish. Most of the jokes don’t even use the race they’re disparaging, it’s just a seasoning added to an existing joke. And when we say racist, we’re not just saying “Oh, grandpa uses slurs but he’s harmless.” It’s some pretty vile stuff.

The full title is "Wit and Humor of the Age comprising Wit, Humor, Pathos, Ridicule, Satires, Dialects, Puns, Conundrums, Riddles, Charades, Jokes and Magic."

How do you appraise the value?

For most of us at the bookstore, the first step is to ask Linda to please help. She has long experience not just researching market prices, but also judging comparable quality of books, tracking down whether there’s anything unique about this copy, and can often tell at a glance whether it’ll be worth our time to start digging in.

A big question we often get is “How do you decide how much to charge for a book?” For new books, that’s easy. We charge list price. The publishers helpfully put it right there on the cover for us. For used books, it’s worth what someone is willing to pay for it. We use a variety of reputable online marketplaces (sorry Amazon, none of your offshoots are useful for this) to see what other copies of the same book have sold for.

What do we do if there are no comparable copies sold? That almost never happens, but when it does, we look for similar factors. Books from the same time period by the same or similar authors will give us good clues as to what to price our book at. Ultimately, we don’t know whether we’re right or wrong until the book sells. If it sold, it was worth exactly what the customer bought it for.

But this book is super old! That means it’s probably valuable, right? Well, the age of a book rarely has much to do with its value in a positive way. The signature of a long-dead author, absolutely. A first edition, possibly. Most likely, the age of a book means that its condition has deteriorated, and very few collectors want damaged books on their beautiful display shelves. The main value of an old book is usually sentimental. This was the book that your mother’s mother read to her when she was a baby, and then she read it to you when you were the same age. Unfortunately, sentimental value is non-transferrable. 

In this case, there are several comparable copies sold of this exact title from this exact printing, and they aren’t worth much. They aren’t particularly rare. It’s not a first printing, it was originally published five years before this one was made. The pencil marks could be interesting if they contained commentary on the text (and therefore capture the thinking of ANOTHER time in the past,) but in this case they’re mostly marking some of the more racist jokes for an unknown purpose. 

Is choosing not to preserve something the same as destroying it?

This is really the heart of the debate here. How much liability do you have for neglecting to protect a historical object? Must you dedicate space to something you’re ethically opposed to for the sake of the historical record? Is the world losing something if we decide NOT to preserve this book? Should we go through and erase the pencil marks and rebind the cover? Should it be a reproduction or homage to the original? Should it incorporate some of the material?

Should we just throw it away?

Since it isn’t rare, is there any harm to just… destroying the book?

This time I don’t have the answers. We haven’t decided yet

So, what do we do?

This one is an actual question. We’re not going to sell it. Ethically, that’s not us. If someone wanted to order a new copy of the same book, or one of the many online, we’d be glad to order it for them directly for a reasonable fee. We’ll let customers buy it, but we won’t sell it. I don’t know why that distinction is important to me, but it is.

Right now, it’s going to sit on our shelf, taking up space that could be filled by other, more desirable books, like a condemned, sinking old warehouse in the middle of a thriving industrial park that no one will tear down because it used to be important, once.

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