Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Axiologies and Books: Comments on Commodification, Value, and Cost

Cost and Value, Among Other Things

Recently, I purchased four used books at a thrift shop--my "bookshops" of choice. One of the reasons I search for books in thrift stores is that these locales often yield the most surprising finds: true "bibliodipitous" moments. Usually, I search for books to buy in either used book shops or thrift shops. There are distinctions, though, in both categories: some book shops are better than others, because of variety of topics and choices. So too are many thrift shops. For instance, the Brown Elephant "chain" of resale shops tends to have a much broader variety of books, but also better quality, higher "brow" literatures, as well as contemporary fiction, histories, and biographical works. The Unique Thrift Shops and Village Discounts (both Chicago institutions of 'thriftery') generally have more popular fiction, Christian fiction, and an occasional classic of Western literature (I've found Shakespeare, Conrad, and other classics usually published for High School English classes to consume). But yard sales, antique shops, and church basement shops often yield similar finds at much discounted prices. A recent acquisition I found in a church basement shop was a hefty biography of Bach for which I only paid a quarter! To name two great purchases: a) The Tale of Genji, which I purchased a few years ago for a mere $1, but new would have cost over $35, while used copies today run between $4 and $20; and b) Heimito Von Doderer's massive two-tome, 1,000+ page The Demons for $9 at a rural upstate New York used book shop, which I purchased, because I'd only seen it in a Chicago used book shop for nearly $35! Certainly there are questions of "cost" and "value," but also what the elemental meaning of commodity is. Who wants it? Who has it? What is it "worth?" Surely, these terms are loaded with connotations and valuations, but it is for us to consider what all of this means in our own individual contexts. And of course, prices vary widely depending on whether or not there is someone who can determine "worth" in a sales environment. And in most thrift shops, these distinctions are not made.

Now here is a list of books that I just purchased. I want to discuss some aspects of these books, including what the books are, whom they were written by, and their condition, among other things:

1) Two Solitudes, by Hugh MacLennan. An imprint of "newpress" Canadian Classics. 412 pages. This edition published in 1991 by General Paperbacks out of Toronto. The thing that is initially interesting about this book is its cover, a painting by Marian Mildred Dale Scott (b. 1906) entitled Escalator (1937)--though I have not put it here, as I couldn't find a photo of the cover. To the left is a collage I created with the cover of the book and another painting by Marian Scott. Rarely do artists get coverage or credit of equal stature to the authors whose books are being decorated, and Ms. Scott's painting has full credit at the very top back of MacLennan's novel in this edition. The cover of this book was ripped, almost completely off, in which case (or most cases) I'd have left the book on the shelf. In fact, I argued with the thrift store clerk to discount the already diminished price of "50 cents," because of this glaring imperfection. He said he couldn't do it. Alas. But I bought the book for the next reason: because it was among the lesser known ranks Canadian literature. "Lesser known" by Americans, I mean. We seem to forget that there's not only a country just north of us, but that it is a dynamic set of cultures and societies that has an astonishingly impressive body of literatures that have been produced by its people, even beyond the more well known narratives of Robertson Davies (who has become one of my favorite writers, incidentally, and accidentally!). Interestingly, the first page of written matter in this work contains on its verso side a listing of those works in the New Press Canadian Classics, which could be worth investigating. These include:

Hubert Aquin, The Antiphonary (trans. Alan Brown)
Sandra Birdsell, Night Travellers
Marie-Claire Blais, Nights in the Underground (trans. Ray Ellenwood)
George Bowering, Burning Water
Anne Hebert, Kamouraska (trans. Norman Shapiro)
Martin Kevan, Racing Tides
Felix Leclerc, The Madman (trans. Philip Stratford)
Antonine Maillet, Pelagie (trans. Philip Stratford)
Leon Rooke, Fat Woman and Shakespeare's Dog

A couple curious items of note are that half of these entries are translated. And my bet is that if I went to look them up now, they'd likely be French Canadian titles. This is nice, because it gives a broader feel to the traditionally linguistic anglo-centrism of our North American literatures, and presumably another sense of literary character to our readings. My other observation is that Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje are on this list (though I haven't included them above); they were at this time in their literary ascendancy.


How much did this book sell for in 1991? This trade fiction sold for $6.95 (but I'm not sure if it was Canadian or American!) The day I bought it, in June 2009, I spent 50 cents (as I noted above). Was it worth it? I'll let you know later.

2) Kamasutra, A new translation by Wendy Doniger & Sudhir Kakar (With Colour Illustrations). 231 pages. Published by Oxford University Press. 2002.


The original cost of this book in 2002 was $26.00US. I purchased it for $1.00. It is, for the most part, in fine if not pristine condition: only ~5 pages have minimal high-lighting. And on the front piece, there is an inscription from the author to one "Marion," which reads: "...and for Marion with best wishes and gratitude from Wendy, March 21, 2003." Hmmmmm. I hope Marion wasn't a good friend, rather someone who waited in line at a Borders or Barnes and Noble to purchase a copy! So I wonder what the value added is with the author's signature added? I've met Wendy, took a class with her in grad school, and have had numerous conversations with her at University of Chicago functions. She is the kind of author who puts herself into her work. So whether or not the inscription means anything, perhaps one day it will. A change in cost or price between 2002 and 2009 from $26.00 to $1.00 (because it was hardback) is a dramatic drop, yet the value of this work is far greater than that one single $1. In fact, I bet she could sell her signature alone for $1, maybe $10 or $100! But the book itself, too, being the Kamasutra, and the newest, freshest, and maybe dirtiest rendition out of the King's English (back through Sanskrit) and into Wendy Doniger's should commodify this book-object into a much more valuable text than one sold for $1 at a thrift store.

3) Salammbo: A Romance of Ancient Carthage, by Gustave Flaubert (with a Critical Study on Flaubert by Guy de Maupassant). Vol. III. Simon P. Magee (Publisher), Chicago, Ill. 1904. 221 pages.


This book, listed as "$4.00" was sold to me for $1.00. Originally published in 1904, I'd have to look up in a directory what its original cost was and a commensurate price for today. According to the "Measuring Worth" calculator--there are several ways to compare temporal worth--I checked out this calculator:

But according to the consumer price index, this $4.00 used book would have been a $0.16 used book in 1904. As for a brand new book? At another interesting website, which tells us how much household items cost in a town in NJ at a given time, in 1904, you can find that household items cost x-amount by searching their lists:
What is interesting is that a newspaper--the only reading item on this list--cost only $0.01. We might deduce from this a price of a book in 1904, if we compared the ratio between paper and book in today's costs, (say a paper today costs about $1-2, while a new book can go for between $12-35, if we're talking major main stream publishing). In this case, a book in 1904 might cost somewhere between $0.12-0.35 new. But used? Hard to tell. One other item: this book seemed interesting to me not just because it was a book by Flaubert, but that it included a critical study by my favorite short story writer, Guy de Maupassant. That adds another layer of value...

4) The Red City: Limoges and the French Nineteenth Century, by John M. Merriman. Oxford University Press. 1985. 332 pages (including index, bibliography, and notes).

For most, you either love or hate the French. I, for the most part, "luv 'em." And this book is just another example. A glance at the Library of Congress subject headings in the front matter reveals immediately the nature of French historiography (even if it is done in America):

"Labor and laboring classes--France--Limoges--History--19th century."

Sure, this is the nature of almost 90% of Franco-historical research, mostly because of that thing called Revolution and the tepidly dulcet prose from de Tocqueville, but it is still striking and interesting to this Francophile. I only by chance happened upon this book in a section of miscellaneous non-fiction, and was drawn first to the words "Red City," which made me think it was a work about some Chinese town (how communistically incorrect I was!), and then "Limoges." I knew this word from my grandmother, or more precisely, from someone who admired my grandmother and her collection of Limoges "china." Which, of course, it all makes sense: "Limoge" is not a red city "in China," but "Limoges" is a red city that "makes china!"

There are some artifactual items of importance in this book, for whatever future historians may be interested. The front inside cover is inscribed with "from the Old Days, 1988." And inside, between pages 166 and 167 is an order slip labeled "Shanachie Records, P.O. Box 284, Newton, N.J. 07860." Well, that means nothing to me! Onward the New Days!


I am not sure of the original cost of this book, but would guess that in 1985, it probably cost around $18.00 new--I will have to research this. But when I bought this book in June 2009, I spent only 50 cents on it!--again, because it was paper-bound, not hard back.

Axiology and Axiologies?

So what exactly is "axiology?" And how does it apply to us? I have come to recognize this "study of value or cost" as something important to our understanding of books, as well as our relationships with books. Axiologically, questions about how we take care of our individual books, our collections, our libraries, and the ethical dimensions of book "stewardship" all play into this understanding. It is important to continue to ask questions about "cost" and "value" and what these terms actually mean in the commodified worlds that we live in. It is by no mistake that my first class in library school was a class that highly emphasized the idea of commodification and what it really meant in terms of information, knowledge, organization and access of information, and book culture. Books have value and books have price: two distinct economic ideas. For most of you, who know me, I value books greatly. Yet, from this blog, you also know that I look for good prices, which in some ways enhances their value, because of the deal I may get on the book. In some ways, if I purchase a high value book, the lower the price (even to the point it is free), the greater the axiological experience becomes. There is some relationship at work here. Such reminds me of a time I needed a book on the history of Australia (The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding, by Robert Hughes). I went out and bought the book new, because I was under a time constraint, and it cost $20 new (soft cover). Since that time, nearly 2 years ago, I have seen at least a dozen copies (hard and soft cover) at thrift stores around the city. Recently, I saw TWO copies in one store--all for under $1. That has elicited a very different feeling, but one that also has to do with "value" and "cost" and "commidification."

Books, value, money. Still lots to think about.

And for those of you interested in last week's ATLA Conference in St. Louis, fear not, I'll be posting my reflections on that shortly.


  1. Fantastic blog!

  2. I can't wait to read your posting of the ATLA Conference. What was your paper on?

  3. Anthony,
    Very interesting. In a way, the internet has made book collecting way more boring than it used to be. When I started collecting the books of Rumer Godden, at first only for reading copies, then first eds (just because I loved her work so much and for the bibliodipity of it), it was only bibliodipitousness that allowed me to find copies. I would walk into any used bookstore I passed, housesales, you name it. But now you can just enter the title you want into alibris (or your fav online used book site) and usually find copies, though not always firsts. Anyway, I find that now that I have the capability to complete my collection of her firsts, I have in a way, less interest in doing so. And also that they are so much more expensive, which of course is a complete downer! Though in a slight bibliodipitous way, I just added one more to my collection--I ordered a copy of Kitchen Madonna (possibly no 1 on my all-time fav books list) for a graduation present, and a bookseller told me he had some other Goddens, was I interested? As I said, only slightly bibliodipitous. But a decent value! I definitely prize the first eds I got for 50 cents more than the one I paid a huge amount for by ordering online. Axiological-now I know another word for an interesting book boying concept.

    PS add Maria Chapdelaine to your French-Canadian reading list, and Mrs. Mike.

  4. Thanks!--I shall. And glad you've added your comments!