I was at used a book store in the Berkshires this week and found a lovely picture book that I wanted to buy for Sebastian. (It was Anno's Alphabet by Mitsumasa Anno, if you're wondering.) Seeing an old price sticker inside, I thought it was around $12, but the proprietor alerted me to the fact that it was actually $30, due to it being a first edition. I declined the purchase, but it got me thinking about the value put onto an item merely because it is old. I realized that I'm not a collector. I may have once felt differently about this, but these days I don't care too much about the physical object in possession. Jay has pointed out how the presence of an object can help invoke precious memories, and I believe he is right about this. Nevertheless, the notion of a book having more monetary value because of the idea of the desirability of a first edition seems like a self-perpetuating, inflated loop. It makes such a noble (and humble) thing as a book into an elitist token. I had to look up the quote about knowledge being the great equalizer--it was written by Horace Mann, an American education reformer and, appropriately enough, a representative from Massachusetts. "Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery." So it was education he was writing about, but I think the idea has a strong connection to books and reading. Books are beautiful, wonderful, meaningful, powerful, all these things, and more. But their value comes from their content, the ideas contained within. I believe purveyors of used books generally go into their field motivated by a sincere love of books, but I think their work is, at times, at odds with the intention of books. The collectible status shifts the value of the book from the content to the object.
As a side note, I just learned a little bit about Horace Mann, whose statue stands outside the Massachusetts State House. I particularly like this quote of his: "Be Ashamed to Die Until You Have Won Some Victory for Humanity." I'd better get on that.