When someone tries to convince me of the pleasure of reading a book online or with a Nook, I wonder if he ever held a rare book in his hands and felt its aesthetic appeal. Hold the volume regarded by many as the greatest work of philosophy ever written: the first English edition of Plato's Republic that is displayed in a glass case at Bauman Rare Books on 535 Madison Avenue in New York. Not only are Plato's words timeless, but the feel of the pages and the sturdy red Morocco spine also resonate.
"Take James Joyce's Ulysses from 1922," says Eric Pedersen, a bookseller at Bauman. "You can read it on a screen or with a Nook, but there is nothing like holding the first edition in your hands, reading the words as they first appeared in print." Only 1,000 copies were printed in the first edition, of which Joyce signed just 100. Bauman just sold a signed copy for $268,000; an unsigned copy fetches from $90,000 to $100,000. No matter how your taste runs, Bauman serves up a feast. Drawn to American literature? Try a first printing of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, in the original dust jacket ($24,000) or Ken Kesey's rebellious One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest ($7,000 with jacket). Leaning toward Americana? The Federalist, with 85 essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, remains an inestimably important historical document and commands $225,000 for its two volumes.
For ancient fare there's Thucydides' Eight Bookes of the Peloponnesian Warre or Plato's Republic, printed in Glasgow in 1763 by the Foulis Press ($25,000).
Sports classics abound, like America's National Game, written by Albert Spalding in 1911. Signed by Spalding, the first edition-a veritable bargain at $2,800-boasts a handsome blue and gold binding and includes over 100 illustrations and foldout plates.
Pedersen offers four criteria that give books value. (1) Priority, is this its first appearance? (2) Condition. (3) Completeness: Does it have everything it came with? (4) Historical Importance.
The rest is subjective. "Part of the beauty of books is that it's a connection that you make with it," says Pedersen. "It's the time you spend with the author and their words."