Saturday, June 1, 2019

Guest Post - 'The Dangers of Nostalgia' by R B Russell

Nostalgia is not necessarily one of the worst vices. It is possible to fondly recall aspects of the past without resorting to romanticism and inaccuracy. In book collecting, nostalgia often manifests itself in re-acquiring much-loved volumes from childhood, which means that the most avid collectors of children’s books are often adults. However, ‘nostalgia’ isn’t quite the word to describe grown-ups buying children’s books that they never owned or read themselves. Perhaps this phenomenon deserves another name? The Brazilian/Portuguese ‘Saudade’ comes close (a melancholic longing for something absent), as does the German ‘Sehnsucht’ (a yearning for an ideal, alternative experience), but neither are quite adequate.

I understand the power of nostalgia: re-reading the blurb from an Armada paperback edition of one of Anthony Buckeridge’s ‘Jennings and Derbyshire’ books is enough to transport me into the past—to the pleasures of sitting in my bedroom on sunny summer days when I should have been outside playing. However, re-reading such books usually fails to recreate for me any of the pleasure I experienced as a child—exposing villains with the Five Find Outers and the Hardy Boys, or going on adventures in foreign lands with Biggles.

Among the books I had as a young teenager I can still re-read Ian Fleming’s ‘James Bond’ books with (a guilty) pleasure, but Leslie Charteris’ ‘Saint’ books now seem terribly dated. Likewise, H.P. Lovecraft’s overwritten stories do not hold my interest as they once did, although the cover art on those Panther and Ballantine paperbacks still promises eldritch horrors. How, though, did I ever read the appalling ‘John Carter of Mars’ books by Edgar Rice Burroughs? (Perhaps, the cover art was an incentive.)

Some of the books of my childhood have come back to me through my family, and I am pleased to give up a little precious shelf space for Doctor Who and the Pyramids of Mars by Terrance Dicks and The Tomorrow People in The Visitor by Roger Price and Julia Gregory. To make sure they don’t lose their power, I don’t attempt to read them. They are all later printings of tatty paperbacks and have no value to collectors, but I can’t see the point in upgrading them to pristine first editions (in dust jackets, where appropriate.) To do so would be to own copies of books that were not really a part of my history—it was those particular paperbacks that I knew and loved.

At book fairs I often see copies of old Rupert annuals that I had as a child. I occasionally flick through them, receive the nostalgic ‘hit’, and replace them on the shelf. (I know that dealers are annoyed by customers doing this!) One good reason for not buying them is the price, but I have noticed that they are not quite as expensive as they once were. There also seem to be more examples on offer. Perhaps they are going the way of books and comics by Frank Richards.

When I first started compiling my Guide to First Edition Prices in 1996, I valued Richards’ ‘Bunter’ books at between £20 and £75, and was immediately taken to task by a number of dealers who said I had undervalued them. (The Times Literary Supplement called me ‘Parsimonious Russell’ in a review.) Perhaps the Bunter books were usually priced a little higher by dealers than I had suggested, but over the various editions of the Guide, dealers admitted to me that Richards’ books were becoming more and more difficult to sell because those who remembered them from their youth were becoming increasingly elderly. Not only was the demand diminishing as collectors died, but the supply was increasing as their collections were sold by uninterested heirs.

Prices have continued to increase for serious rarities by Richards in pristine jackets, presumably by collectors nostalgic for a childhood they never experienced, but those collectors can expect to cut a better deal now that much of the committed competition has left the scene. Basic economics ought to mean a fall in prices, but dealers are always unwilling to reduce the pencilled price on the front free endpaper, even though a book may have been on the shelves for year after year.

Until recently even later issues of Rupert annuals were commanding a great deal of money, but the market is not what it was. Despite periodic and half-hearted revivals, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers are not collected like they used to be. Next to fall in value will be early issues of 2000AD comics. (For over a decade Prog. 1 has been stuck at a value of £100 for the first issue—with the free ‘space spinner’, of course.)

Nostalgia is all very well, especially for those who can afford it, but it is a dangerous investment. The most financially rewarding answer is to invest in books that have more than just a nostalgia value, but collecting children’s books is about a sense of wonder and excitement that has little to do with literary merit or cultural significance. Their qualities cannot be easily defined, and it is impossible to put a monetary value on their importance to us. However, if you really want to indulge, a dealer will always have a specific price in mind. Just remember to point out the jam stain on the boards, the gift inscription on the title page, and the fact that the word-search has been inexpertly filled-in. Considering these faults, the dealer ought to knock off at least ten percent.

R B Russell


  1. Great post! I fell into this trap and bought the first six Hardy Boys books (the Applewood facsimile editions of the pre-bowdlerized 1930s originals) and while they look great on my shelf, I doubt I'll get around to reading them.

    Ramsey Campbell considered Rupert's Christmas Tree one of the most terrifying books of his childhood:

    -Jeff Matthews

  2. Nostalgia is certainly a powerful thing. I have a house full of pulps, vintage paperbacks, little magazines, and SF magazines. I still have the very first SF magazine that started my collecting frenzy: the February 1956 issue of GALAXY SF. I intend to take all this stuff with me...

  3. Epochal. Much is made of how these things acquire their aura ("collectibility"). Little is said of how they turn back into cheap paper and dry leaves, but that may actually be the more important phase in the cycle. Thank you for this.

    Although that jam smear and inscription may ultimately become the most important part, the only part worth keeping.

  4. I've never understood the concept of guilty pleasurep. I never feel guilty about enjoying anything.

  5. I was thoughtful - or stupid - enough to hold onto paperbacks that meant a lot to me when I was young, such as the works of John A. Keel. But as you are discussing forms of nostalgia that are really something else, I wonder if there is a term for the desire one feels when one finds something that one USED to collect but no longer does? I do feel this when I find a cache of Doc Savage Bantam paperbacks, for instance.

  6. Another excellent observation, Ray. Your analysis of collectible book pricing and the practices of the book trade are always a fascinating and illuminating read!