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Good - better - best (and the tyranny of collecting!)

For many, buying a book is just the start of a long search to improve it. But when there's always a better book out there, at what point do you stop and be content with what you have?

Take a look at the picture below – it’s of what many collectors would regard as an exceptionally good condition first edition, first impression of You Only Live Twice (1964).

This book was literally photographed yesterday, and using no filters, no colour touching up, and no editing, some might say it looks as good as the day it was printed 60 years ago.


The soft delicate pinks (which usually tan terribly) still look fantastic. The face of the DJ looks clean and bright and arresting. In fact the whole jacket looks superb. (Ps, if you want to buy it, then get in touch!)


Compared to the condition this book typically comes up for sale in (with sun-darkened and browned DJs; colour fading, and general grubby appearance), for many people this book would be right up-there as one of the nicest they can get.


But now take a look at these two pictures below:

In the picture of two books immediately on the left, the book at the bottom of the pile is the first book pictured above.

On top of it is an example of the same title. This new book - quite clearly - looks to be a much nicer example.


Even though the original book initially looked great, suddenly (and when compared to the book on top of it), the original book’s spine looks just that little bit darker. The colours look a bit less delicate and more ‘yellowy’, and all-round, the bottom book just looks 'less good'.

And just to mess with your head even more – what happens when we add a third You Only Live Twice to the same stack (left) - the latest addition being at the top of the pile?

Admittedly, this time round the differences between the top book and the middle one are harder to spot. But differences there are. While it's hard to see them on a screen, believe me when I tell you that this top book is now – I would claim –the best of the lot.

Good, Better, Best… Argh!!!

Ultimately, what this simple book comparison serves to remind us, is that when we only have is a single book to look at, (and especially without another one next to it for comparison), the item in question can typically look very good indeed.

Often it's only once a book is placed next to another (of the same title), that differences can start to be seen.

If you still don't believe me, you only need to look at this side by side photograph of two Dr No first edition books (above, left).

Photographed right next to each other, the colours of these two first impression dust jackets look very different indeed.

Seen on their own, most people probably wouldn't realise just how different these two examples of the same book could actually look.

Returning to the You Only Live Twice books, and to really drive their differences home, here they are again, this time all stood upright.

From left to right, there is a definite good, better, best gradation here - which for some people, really matters.

Is seeking top condition an perennially unhappy pursuit?

Putting things into perspective, all three of the You Only Live Twice books are, in my opinion, very-good to excellent.

I rather suspect that an average collector would be thrilled to own any of them. And, let’s face it, in the real world, it's not often we have a line of books like this to make such minute comparisons.

That said, even modest collectors will probably admit that at some point or other, they've lined up doubles of books that they might have acquired, precisely to decide which one to keep, and which needs moving on.

And for some collectors - those who only want the best - comparing books against each other - is literally what they do.

The psychology of collecting

All sellers of books can be accused of praying on buyers' need to find ever-better examples for their collections - myself included (I even have an upgrade service - see later).

But despite being a member of the bookselling system, even I've wondered whether having an obsession with fineness is an affliction that is ultimately destructive.

Here we move into the realms of the psychology of collecting – which is – on its own – a fascinating topic. Experts suggest collecting describes having a penchant for everything from materialism, to part low-level compulsion, nostalgia, and even addiction.


Getting the best possible version of something however – or never quite being satisfied with what you have – is something that’s less easy to categorise though.


What experience certainly tells me though, is that most book collectors do not typically suffer from ‘oniomania’ – that is, an ‘addiction to shopping’.


Far from it. In fact, if anything, most book collectors become increasingly, and extremely discerning about what they buy – even, dare I say it, picky.


But this is where I believe a mania (a word Fleming himself often used), for collecting better versions of the same book may come from.


Should we applaud it?


This is a difficult question. At a purely psychological level, what’s certainly the case, is that it is ultimately difficult to obtain long-term joy or fulfillment if we constantly feel compelled to pursue perfectionism.

If we’re not content with good, or not content with better, or not even content with best, we could just be on to a hiding to nothing.


That said, while knowing there is always a better book out there can be a source of frustration for some, for others it's just the thing that spurs them on. Maybe it gives collecting a finite set of book a better focus (to improve it). Maybe seeking out those fractionally better books can be something people get a real sense of enjoyment from.


In this sense, I find myself defaulting to the position that if it makes someone happy, who are we to say it's not a worthy pursuit?

What would Fleming have said?

One thing I will say, is that I do feel collectors 'do' instinctively know when to stop – that is when to accept that ‘better’ is one up from ‘good’, and that’s good enough for them. (Disposable income will certainly play a part in this, as will basic common sense).


And when we look at the process of collecting, we can all take – I feel – some direction from the great man himself – Ian Fleming, a man who, in addition to writing the Bond books, was himself a great book collector (he actually launched The Book Collector magazine). In 1935 Fleming - with a £250 upfront booty - famously commissioned rare book dealer, Percy Muir, with the task of assembling a thousand volumes of “pioneering texts". These included works on topics from science and technology to politics and sports.


While I'm not sure perfection was something Fleming initially sought, it has been noted that Fleming did like to take particular care of his books.

Each one had a black buckram fleece-lined box custom-made to his own design, decorated with his armorial device stamped in gold and morocco labels coloured according to subject.

Muir - much to his chagrin - actually remarked that Fleming rarely looked at his books once they were acquired and in their cases, suggesting Fleming may have been the sort of man who got contentment simply from knowing he had X, or Y book - much as collectors will get contentment that they have the best possible condition book they can.


Choices, choices...

Whether or not you think seeking perfection is a fruitless exercise, what I suspect we can all agree on is that in book collecting, there are always choices.

Some choices are quite easy to make.

Take a look at this line of On Her Majesty's Secret Service books (left). It's not difficult to know what one is the better book.

Other books however, present much tougher pros and cons. Have a look at these two examples of Diamonds Are Forever below (both are currently in stock, get in touch for more details):

What would you go for (assuming the condition of the book inside is the same?)

It’s a trickier question than it first looks. The bottom book's jacket is a bit more worn, but potentially outweighing this is the fact the lips of the woman are in a brighter pink, while the word 'Forever' on the spine retains its pink colour completely. Compare this to the one above it, which has faded to white. BUT... while the top one might be faded to the spine, the overall condition is better.

The more I look at it, the more I think it's a difficult call!!

Aiming for the best we can

Ultimately, most collectors, will be aiming to strike that ever-so-delicate balance between condition and price, and will be wanting to get the best they can for the best price they can.

At we pride ourselves in offering exceptionally good condition books at non-London boutique store prices. And, if you do spot a book we're selling that upgrades one you already own, we also offer a unique upgrade service, where we'll use your existing first edition as part-payment for an upgrade book we're selling (subject to a price being agree).

It's our way of helping you move from good, to better, or from better to best, without it breaking the bank. 

Because we know that when you do have a not-so-great book that's been bothering you for ages, and is one you've been desperate to improve for longer than you can remember, it can be done, and you can get that closure you've been waiting for!

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