A Classic in More Ways than One

Today, since it’s the season for indulgence, I thought I’d share with you my philosophy of book-buying. Those of you who have been studying Classics for a while will know that compulsive book-buying is an occupational hazard: most of us have piles of books on every available surface, or have put up acres of shelving in a desperate attempt uncover the floor.

The problem with book-buying is that, like new cars, new books are subject to instant depreciation. As soon as you drive a new car out of the dealership its value drops; as soon as you crack open a new book, it’s worth less than it was in the shop. So how do you change your book-buying addiction from an indulgence into an investment?

My solution is what I call The Classic Car Strategy. Instead of buying new books I find them free online, visit academic libraries or get hold of free review copies, saving my money. Then I blow all of that money on old books: classic car equivalents, you might say.

Old books can be very expensive: some will set you back as much as the aforementioned car, and they can be every bit as difficult to restore and maintain. But bargains are out there. Almost every old book I own has cost me less than a train ticket to the nearest Waterstones. I also have better luck haggling at a market stall than I do in WH Smith!

So where do you find old books? Well, the obvious places are Abebooks and Ebay (you can search Ebay by date of publication, which is handy). However, once you start looking you’ll see plenty of other outlets. Book fairs are big business now: they’re often expensive, but they have fabulous specialist stalls (local history, children’s picture books, etc).  Second-hand bookshops, too, are still around, although only a few are thriving these days.

It’s very difficult to explain a passion for old books (believe me, I’ve tried!). But on the assumption that a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps these photos of books from my collection will help…


Virgil ParisThis little volume of Virgil was printed in 18th century Paris. Check out the date: Anno Reipublici VI. This tells us that the book was printed in 1796 or 97, when the government which followed the French Revolution fundamentally altered the calendar, dating the years from the establishment of the Republic, renaming all of the months and even reclassifying the lengths of minutes and hours! This new calendar only lasted for about 12 years, before the Gregorian calendar was restored by Napoleon.


 DSC03230From 1753, this set of little Tacitus volumes comes from the Foulis Press, established in Glasgow by brothers Robert and Andrew Foulis. Foulis books were top of the range, and had a reputation throughout 18th century Britain for setting new standards in perfection and understated elegance.



liddell and scottThis is my 1869 volume of Liddell and Scott, from the days when even reference books were fabulous!


So if a kind relative gives you a £20 note for Christmas, think twice before you spend it on a new Liddell and Scott (well, I suppose you might be more likely to spend it on a pizza and some bin bags – but it’s my website, and I’ll be unrealistic if I want to!). Instead, find a dusty bookshop or a January book fair, and see if you can locate an old dictionary. It will be just as useful, and you’ll be owning a piece of history and a solid investment for the future.

Just don’t buy all the good books: leave some for me, please!


Cora Beth Knowles

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