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Lurking about a Washington bookshop the other day I overheard another book dealer and the shop owner discussing a copy of Cormac McCarthy’s 1992 National Book Award winner.
"That’s a nice first of ‘All the Pretty Horses.’ Too bad about that bookplate," said the dealer.
"Yeah, that’s why I have it at only $175," replied the shop owner. "I don’t know why people have to deface their books anyway."
What they were lamenting, of course, was that the prior owner of the book had pasted in a bookplate—one of those ownership labels which says something like "This book belongs to...."—and this ‘senseless act’ had lopped about $75 off the price the shop owner thought he could get for it.
So is it really that bad to write your name in your books? Well, the straightforward answer is...that there is no straightforward answer. It depends on who you ask, what kind of book it is, and whether or not you go on to become president of the United States.
The book mentioned above, "All the Pretty Horses," (a fine book, by the way) belongs to that collectable group known as modern firsts. Generally speaking, ‘modern firsts’ are the first printings of fairly recently published works which are sought by collectors. It is an interesting and often volatile branch of book collecting that places a high premium on condition, and any prior ownership marks are usually viewed as flaws.
Serious modern firsts collectors are absolute fanatics about condition. They seek a pristine and virginal copy of the book, as flawless as the day it was manufactured. Naturally, they look down upon signs of prior ownership such as bookplates, inked names, gift inscriptions, etc., and this is reflected in the lower prices they will pay for such...uh, sullied...copies.
This condition fanaticism among the modern firsts crowd is actually quite logical. It is rooted in the mass production of modern books. Sure, some modern firsts are considered scarce, but we are not talking Gutenberg Bibles or Shakespeare First Folios here. These days most books have first print runs of at least several thousand identical copies. To simply find and acquire one of these copies would not be a great challenge. But to find and acquire a copy in perfect condition with a perfect dust jacket would be, especially 10, 20, or 50 years after publication. By placing a premium on condition, modern firsts collectors impose a hierarchy on what would otherwise be a relatively large group of identical objects.
So yes, because they perceive most prior ownership marks as flaws, modern firsts dealers and collectors would definitely prefer that you not put your name, bookplate, gift message, or any other mark in your books. In fact, they would rather you not read the books at all, if quite convenient.
Condition is always important, but there are many areas of book collecting where the perceived condition of a book is not negatively impacted by marks of prior ownership. Books that are collected for their content, like genealogy, military history, and cookbooks are just a few examples. In fact many collectors enjoy prior owner names, bookplates, etc., in such books, viewing them as nostalgic links to the book’s own history. Books that are truly unique or scarce will also not be shunned because of prior ownership marks. You will never hear someone say, for example, "Hey, that’s a really nice first of ‘Tamerlane.’ Too bad about that prior owner name."
As a book dealer, I am less bothered by prior ownership marks than some of my colleagues are. But then I don’t specialize in modern firsts. And I choose not to mark my own books. The main consideration for me is whether or not there is anything to be gained by marking a book. I don’t loan my books out, so there is no need for my name in them. For books I give as gifts I think that inscribing a plain card and laying it into the book actually makes a better presentation than trying to write on the endpapers of the book itself. And if it helps preserve the value of what later proves to be a collectable book, all the better for the recipient.
Of course the entire question of prior ownership marks is turned on its head when the prior owner turns out to famous (or infamous). For example, if you are Bill Clinton no collector or dealer would devalue your copy of "All the Pretty Horses" because it contains your name and bookplate—despite what they may think of your politics.
Chances are good that you already know it if you are a celebrity. If you are, you have my permission to go ahead and write in your books. Everyone else needs a good reason.