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How To Collect Mountaineering Books
There are many reasons to buy Mountaineering Books, or similar subjects such as Travel, Exploration, Arctic and Antarctic Books. There is no one best reason. You can buy books to read them, to decorate your home, to invest in their value, or just for the physical pleasure of looking at them. We make no value judgements on any of these motives, as we have ourselves bought books for all those reasons, and perhaps others!
If the stories of the great climbers interest and excite you, then by all means yield to your desire to read the many terrific stories that have been written about mountaineering. I started reading climbing books as a teenager, seeking them out in the library, and started with Felice Benuzzi's No Picnic On Mount Kenya, a great true story of survival and a man's desire to climb the peak of his dreams, which was a new book at the time in the 1950s.
Many people who grew up after WWII read Herzog's Annapurna, with its spine chilling description of Herzog's freezing and then losing his fingers. One of the thrills of my life was shaking his fingerless hand! We all read Hunt's Ascent of Everest, with its dramatic summit chapter written by the greatest name in mountaineering, Edmund Hillary. Again, one of the thrills of my life was asking Hillary to autograph copies of the book that made him a household name.
Recently Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air has inspired thousands of people to read more mountaineering books. Jon has a bibliography in his book that lists other recommended books. We also publish elsewhere on this website a list of the 100 Best Mountaineeirng Books, a list designed more for reading and historical significance than collecting, although it will serve for that as well.
There have been over 4000 books written in English about mountaineering. Many have achieved iconic status among climbers and readers, and that is one clue as to which books are the best to have. Of course there are many important books on Mountaineering written in Japanese, Italian, French, German and many other languages. In fact, the most prolific author (and the greatest climber in the world) Reinhold Messner has written over 60 books in German or Italian, and only 1/3 of them have been translated into English. And he is still writing more!
Mountaineering books are more than great stories and the lives of climbers. They can also have great photography, or be guidebooks that helped people discover great climbs, or be a good reference to climbs and climbing history, or describe important climbs such as the 8000 meter peaks, the world's highest. Lists of these great books are in our 100 Best Books List as well.
If you decide to collect books for the pleasure of having them, the people who collect all kinds of books have a bunch of rules that they go by in insure that they are buying the best copy. If the stories in the books interest you more than the physical book, then buy the paperbacks and keep reading and re-reading them. If you desire fine things, and care about the value of your books down the road, then these are some of the rules that book collectors go by. These rules also may apply to antiques, and other collectibles.
1. The first edition is usually the most desirable version of a book. Luckily, most books had only a first edition. 'First edition' usually means the first version sold in stores in the original language. If you don't want books you cannot read, the first UK or USA edition is almost always the one you want. If the author is American the USA edition is usually first, British authors of course make the UK edition the real first. Nowadays some books are published simultaneously so they may be identical.
There are exceptions to the first edition rule. For example, Messner's Alle Meine Gipfel (All My Peaks) has been revised every decade as he climbed more peaks, so the last edition is the most complete. Identifying a first edition can be a problem. Most copies of Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet that are labeled First Edition are really Book of the Month Club editions, not worth as much, although almost identical. Same for Ullman's Americans On Everest. There is always a way to tell which is a first edition, and no rule covers all eventualities. We know almost all mountaineering books by heart, and can advise you.
2. The book's condition is very important. Nobody wants to buy or drive a dented car (unless you park in NYC like I did) so try to get a book when it is first published, rather than a dented one ten years later. If you buy books that are over a few years old, you generally have to buy a used book, and we have words or terms that describe the used book's condition: New, Fine, Very Good, Good and Poor. Those words are defined in the FAQ section elsewhere on our website.
Buy the best copy you can afford, and if price is no object, then always buy the best copy. For collecting, avoid books that are Ex Lib, and that have marks from a public library on the spine or inside. Avoid books with missing plates, maps, or damage such as from water. However, loose pages, other minor flaws and damaged covers can be fixed by a competent bookbinder. Flawed books though, can be a bargain for readers and research of course.
3. The Dust Jacket (DJ) is the paper cover that has been issued on books since the 19th century. Wikipedia has a good essay on Dust Jackets. Despite their name, I think they were always really an advertising package designed to help sell the book. They usually have done their job of keeping the book itself clean, the DJ can be attractive, and the old ones that are plain white paper with black type and b/w photos can be terrific to have.
Due to their fragility, desirability and sometimes scarcity (people used to throw them away) they can be worth as much or more than the book they are on! Being light paper, they are prone to tearing or even losing pieces, called chips, over time. Some dust jackets are more vulnerable to damage than others, and unfortunately this does not become apparent until many years after the book is published. The way to protect dust jackets is to use plastic jacket covers made by Brodart and other companies. We place covers on all valuable dust jackets. Always buy a book with the best condition DJ you can find if you are collecting for value or appearance.
4. Author Signatures in books often add to the fun and value of book collecting. If you can meet the author, such as at a reading, slide show or climbing event, by all means bring his books for him to sign. Or if you meet a climber who is mentioned in books but has not written one himself, he will usually be happy to sign for you. Certainly anybody who has climbed and survived the deadly K2 will sign any K2 book for you, and should!
The best written and exciting mountaineering book of the last 60 years is Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. Joe himself has become a grinch and doesn't sign books much any more. However the two other big names in the book do. First is Simon Yates, who cut Joe's rope and thereby saved Joe's life, and is a real gentleman in every sense of the word, and is generous about signing Joe's book and his own books. Also, Chris Bonington, who wrote the book's introduction, is not only one of the most prolific Mountaineering Book authors, but also one of the nicest. I have seen him sit for over an hour after a lecture signing books at a table, and chatting with climbers and readers, even if he didn't have a new book to promote.
Right now almost all the great climbers from the Golden Age of Himalayan climbing, the men who did the first ascents of the 8000 meter peaks, have passed away or are about to. That generation of great men will never be seen again, even though today's climbers climb at a much higher standard. Also, life is fragile. Get people to sign your books when you have the chance. I am sorry that I never asked Tenzing Norgay, Alex Lowe, Warren Harding and Charlie Fowler to sign books.
I am so glad I made the effort to get Bob Bates, Charlie Houston, Ed Hillary, Maurice Herzog, Pete Schoening, Galen Rowell and Heinrich Harrer to sign books before they passed away. Think ahead. Also, some authors have told us they prefer not to get packages of books in the mail from collectors asking for signatures, so ask first.
5. Buy the book you want when you first see it. The books business is in a perilous state these days. And, a pet peeve of mine, book publishers are actually often poor businessmen, make stupid decisions, and do not necessarily even like books! (Authors have often told me that many are thieves as well, not paying them!) Their goal is certainly not to give you a great book at a fair price, and have it always available.
Some books may now be done only as an on-line virtual book, some as an on-demand book only. Australia and New Zealand, countries that have produced many great climbers and some great books, are publishing less and less, and mostly paperbacks when they do. Also, after time you may see books offered at a reduced price, often as a remainder (books sold by the publisher at a low price after it stops selling well). It may tempt you to wait a while to save some money.
Many books are printed in very short runs. By the time you decide to buy, it may be in a 2nd printing, out of print or in paperback only, not because it sold extremely well as a 1st edition, but because the publisher printed so few. For example, by the time Jim Perrin's great biography of Don Whillans, The Villain, arrived in the USA, the UK hardcover editions were already in a 2nd printing, and the USA edition was a paperback. You snooze you lose.
6. Customers frequently ask us how to store their books. That is easy. On a shelf, packed snugly next to each other. That's it. But, here is what not to do. Keep your books away from sunlight to avoid fading. Away from heat that causes warping and drying out. Away from water, so if the roof leaks, or pipes break, or the basement floods, they cannot get wet.
Keep your books away from spraying cats, chewing dogs, frisky children. We have seen all of these happen! It has happened to us, when a new roof leaked after we had paid $8000 for it! It happened when our upstairs neighbor's child threw wooden sticks into the toilet and it overflowed into my bookshop and ruined some books. We went to court on that one, and won.
7. If you collect books with an eye towards reselling them at some time, all the above rules apply much more than if you never intend to sell them. Your children who will inherit your estate will prefer cash over climbing books, I assure you. Libraries do not want your books, as they have low budgets to maintain books, no room, there are already many fine mountaineering libraries, and to be honest, it is not an academic subject. Mountaineering is a useless activity, as Lionel Terray told us. So do not expect anybody else to have the passion for your books that you have.
If you decide to sell your books, either because of age, moving into a smaller house, need for cash, or changing interests (again we have seen all of these), do not expect to 'make money' on the books if you have had them for five or ten years. On the other hand, if you have had them for thirty years, your books may hold their value or actually increase if you have selected wisely.