At the end of last year, BirdFellow put up a photo essay about abused field guides. The books pictured in that post have obviously led very punishing lives, and the photos would probably make any right-minded bibliophile cringe or start sobbing.
Recently, in another post, BirdFellow promoted a comment from the abused field guides post and gave it its own moment in the sun. Commenter Bob Tarte wrote about two old bird books that he found in used bookstores, and he included this felicitous line, “…whenever I look up the birds in this book, I feel the presence of its original owner.”
I’ll come back to that thought in a moment, but first I’d like to share some images of my most-abused bird book, which is not a field guide but a bird-finding guide.
I was a relatively new birder when I bought a copy of Bill Boyle’s A Guide to Bird Finding in New Jersey. I was a new enough birder that the idea of a bird-finding guide seemed extreme. After all, there were birds in my backyard. There were birds in the local parks. Finding birds didn’t seem to be a difficult proposition at all. However, my guiding principle when taking up an interest is to buy as many books about it as possible, so I bought that bird-finding guide, even though it seemed a little silly to do so.
So this is what that bird-finding guide looks like today:
Front cover. Not very visible are the checklists for various NJ birding locations that are stuffed into the book as a method of filing.
The binding began splitting, so I fixed it up with white tape. That worked for a while, but then it began splitting again, so I patched it with white tape again. Then the front board decided it wanted to leave the spine, but before I had to correct that, a new edition of the book came out and I retired this copy.
Then there’s the interior, which sports highlighting, underlining, notes of when and where I saw certain species, dog-eared pages…you get the drift. I even stuck a bookplate in it. This may not be an abused field guide, but it’s a very abused bird book that has more than earned its retirement.
With that, I’ll return to Bob Tarte’s comment about the presence of the original owner. Book dealers like old books with little or no wear and damage, since wear reduces a book’s value. The only exception would be if a book’s marginalia came from a famous person, or if the book was signed by the author. This kind of wear isn’t damage, but can enhance a book’s value.
Most birders aren’t famous, but a lot of them mark up some of their books as a record of their sightings. This happens most frequently with field guides. I’ve run across marked-up bird books in used bookstores plenty of times. If I end up buying those books, I’m likely to treasure them just a little bit more precisely because they carry the presence of the original owner and note-taker. That just goes to show that different people can look at the same book and arrive at a different estimate of its value.