Our Reading Lives

Are First Editions Meant to be Read or Merely Displayed?

This is a guest post from Maegan Donovan. Maegan is an avid reader, a negligent blogger and holds an M.A. in History. She is currently raising a burgeoning reader with her husband and writes about life’s simple joys at Lovely Leanings in her limited spare time.

Several months ago, I proudly purchased my first first edition – John Steinbeck’s The Winter of our Discontent. I (im)patiently waited for it in the mail and unwrapped it methodically, as if I would damage the book itself if I tore open the box too harshly. I turned it over in my hands carefully, smelled it (don’t judge) and then I set it down on my bookcase… where it has remained.

I read this book years ago and everything about it resonated with me. It was my adoration for this particular novel that drove me to seek out a more valuable copy in the first place. But as a result of my reverence for this work, I’ve been unable to bring myself to open and actually read this particular printing. I’ve developed a looming fear that if I open it, it will lose its luster and become tainted.

I realize this apprehension sounds ludicrous, but I’m not alone in my thinking. There is an unshakeable division within the book lover’s community over whether to read or simply serve as protective guardians over treasured copies of resonating works. This divide runs deep, right up there with physical books vs. kindles and dog-earing vs. bookmarks debates. 

I’ve contemplated the myriad of factors that influence both sides of the argument. There is the value of the book to take into consideration. I have a toddler with both a budding interest in “mommy’s books” and an affinity for peanut butter. Given that she frequently finds a way to ensure these two interests go hand in hand, I’m not likely to leave an expensive first edition lying around as prey.

Next, I considered my purpose of investing in first printings and rare books. I’d be more willing to read a narrative if my sole purpose was to pass it down one day or establish a connection to the author or story. On the flip side, if I were planning to rely on a book to grow my wealth (I’m not) or sell it one day (I just couldn’t), then on the display shelf it would go.

Finally, we come to the age and condition of the book. I’d be much more likely to read a 1963 first edition of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar than I would the delicate pages of an 1862 first edition of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

So, what’s the verdict?

I’ve taken up residence in the “read it” camp. First printings are the purest form of an author’s narrative, as they haven’t yet been modified or diluted by later publications. I just can’t shake the nagging idea that locking them away feels like an indulgent waste.

Thanks in large part to my mild obsession with Parisian books, I’ve adopted the quintessentially French attitude of quality over quantity and a strong belief that nice things should be used rather than simply coveted. Art should be displayed, nice attire should be worn everyday and fine china is meant to be set and dined upon at every meal.

With this in mind, I plan to snuggle up in my reading chair and start my Steinbeck…with great care, of course.