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This price is for the birds!

December 14, 2010

Birds of America breaks records as the most expensive book ever.

It sold at Sotheby’s for 6.5 million pounds. That’s over 10 million dollars.

And I thought my book buying could get extreme….

At Sotheby’s auction house in London, up on the block was Audubon’s masterpiece, “The Birds of America,” one of the largest – and rarest – books in the world.

Most copies are in museums. There are only 11 left in private hands.

So that puts it in context, somewhat. But the price still surprises me. It’s also sobering to wonder about what books might be up for auction centuries from now. Will there even still be books in common use? Or will they be replaced by another form of technology?

The idea of books in general becoming rare is a fascinating one (though I find it scary) and an interesting jumping-off point for wondering about the fate of books generally. E-books are becoming more prevalent, in their various formats. Will they usurp paper books and bookstores? Will paper books stop being manufactured, and become rare antiques? (The idea of anything by Dan Brown becoming an antique makes me want to hide under the bed forever.)

What I see happening with the idea of paper books becoming rare, is a weird sort of turnabout or deja vu. The first books, hand-lettered and lavish, were the prized possessions of a select few wealthy patrons, or the church.

Will a transition to electronic books, and the diminishing of paper book supply, make that happen again? So that paper books, even books now taken for granted as mass market, become costly and rare eccentricities in the hands of the wealthy few?
I imagine there will be a transition phase, where paper books are seen as dowdy and passe, or determinedly retro, before this happens.

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