Wednesday, August 10, 2016


First edition of Alex Haley's Roots.
I recently described the kinds of books I deal in as largely consisting of "oddball" items. Fortunately, there seem to be others out there equally interested in at least some of the oddball things I buy, and I've been lucky to be able to sell a few oddball items here and there. What remains, I sometimes fear, is the oddest of the odd.

One broad category of oddball items I can't seem to resist is books that are damaged, especially if the damage is intentional or particularly interesting. I am always interested in medieval manuscripts (and early printed books) that have been recycled as binding materials, for example, and I have bought more than one printed book recycled as a scrapbook, its printed pages pasted over with other things. 

Condition, of course, is a key aspect of value in many areas of the rare and collectible book world, and damaged books are, from that perspective, the least valuable: yet mint condition books can almost never tell us about readers or users or even how owners valued them. In that sense, damaged books often tell us more about their own history as objects than books in collectible condition can ever do. 

And yet, once in a while I've bought a book with damage that I've despaired of ever understanding, and I ran across one of these recently as I've been working on a short catalogue on the general topic of African-American literature.  The book in question is a signed first edition of Alex Haley's Roots, an important book from the 1970s.

Signed copies are worth something, and when I had a chance to pick this signed copy up for under ten dollars, I bought it. But even as I did, I worried that I'd never be able to sell it, for some owner or bookseller, at some point in the book's history, did something incomprehensible: Haley's signature has been covered over with three sweeps of a wide black marker.

Haley's signature, just visible under the marker lines.

I have seen used books where owners have blacked out (or whited out) their own names and addresses before selling them on, but I don't think I've ever run across an author's signature treated this way before. Nor do I ever want to run into it again, of course. Perhaps a former owner of this book was running through a stack, before selling them, blacking out their own names, and accidentally blacked out Haley's signature too. Or maybe there is some other explanation.

But I find it inexplicable. Books, used books, damaged books, do tell us some of their history, and sometimes the stories they tell are fascinating. But sometimes they seem to raise questions that we probably can never answer. 

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