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How to Determine the Condition of a Rare Book

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Here's a book tip worth remembering: That first-edition copy of your favorite novel, sitting on the shelf in your living room, could hold more than purely sentimental value. In fact, if it's in high demand and in good condition, a rare book can fetch a pretty handsome price — that is, of course, if you ever were willing to sell it.

But say you truly do have a rare book on your hands. How do you evaluate its condition? Is there more to consider besides the look of the cover? What factors play an important role?

To help answer those questions, here's a look at the common terms used to describe the condition of a rare book. Hold your copy to these standards and see where it lines up:

  • Like New: A like-new book is just what it sounds like — in pristine condition, as high in quality as it would have been when it first printed. This book has no signs of wear and tear, no damage, and little to no sign of aging.
  • Fine: Just a small step down from "like new" is "fine," which describes a book with very little wear. It's a book that's been lightly handled but is otherwise in excellent condition.
  • Very Good: A very good book condition means only minor defects. Maybe there's a tiny tear on a page corner or a barely noticeable scuff on the cover. These minor defects don't affect the book's overall condition but do reveal slight imperfection.
  • Good: Books in good condition show slight wear and tear, maybe damage to the dust jacket, for example. Overall, however, they are complete and cared for.
  • Fair: A complete book with evident damage to some of the page edges would be called "fair." Likewise, a book in fair condition may be missing a half title page or some endpapers.
  • Poor: A book in poor condition is a book with major damage — missing pages, soiled pages, stains, spots, loosened binding, etc. This sort of book would retain significant value only if it included a rare signature or inscription, or if it had been owned by someone famous. Otherwise, it's likely not worth selling.

Beyond this scale of general book condition terms, there are a few other descriptions sometimes used in evaluating rare books. Here are a few of which to be familiar:

  • Binding Copy: A binding copy of a book is acceptable content-wise but has loose or missing binding.
  • Reading Copy: A reading copy is a book that's good for reading but nothing more. It's probably in fair to poor condition, but the text is still legible throughout.

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