An illustration of a yellow book, with the title Dracula in red, on a white podium in blue light

‘I refuse to read a book with an ugly cover’: a glimpse at the compulsive world of book collecting

Joel Golby speaks with a book collecting expert about his growing habit with seeking out obscure and beautiful covers. What happens when a preference threatens to turn into an obsession?  

Joel Golby

It was 2017 and a hangover that started it all. You have to imagine this: me, in a hoodie pulled tight over my head and with the strings pulled taut around me, sunglasses tight against the glare of a grey-white day. It was 9 a.m. and I was up, for some reason. I wasn’t in a good way. I’m not going to sit here and pretend to you that I was in a good way.

I was at a car boot sale. Car boot sales have a texture that cannot be synthesised in any other realm of life or the world: men with grey feathered mullets haggling with each other over box-damaged Scalextric; a plume of steam, solid like concrete, moving sideways out of a burger van; a man in a grease-stained leather vest and the inescapable vibe that he keeps rats as pets looms at you out of a rack of old trench coats.

But I was there, on this hangover, in this car boot, and stood in the centre of a pile of children’s shoes like a witch’s offering, I saw it: a perfect yellow copy of Dracula. On the front, in outstanding gothic font: DRACULA. Down the sides, a lurid blood-red fore-edge. Inside, ominous pencil-sketch illustrations, like children possessed by a demon might etch. “How much, mate?” I asked the car boot man (leather fedora, voice louder than most jet engines, bumbag full of coins). “Three quid, pal.” I took out all of the change in my pockets and pretended I couldn’t count it until he caved and plucked £2.50 out of my outstretched palm. I took it home and instantly rearranged my bookshelf so as to display it: yellow, gothic, radiant. Something haunted but not. I was hooked.

I’m in a boom-time of reading, right now. It hit when – well, when a global pandemic locked me inside my house and reading a book was the only thing I could do besides stare at a screen. I’ve been impulse-buying books ferociously for months.

This reading boom has gone hand-in-hand with what we’re calling ‘my Dracula problem’, because I simply refuse to read books with ugly covers. I know this is both snobbish and abnormal, but hear me out: when buying used books on eBay, which I most often do, it’s literally always worth scrolling down and finding a rare-print cover, or a weird 90s knackered paperback, or an American softcover, rather than the glossy version Amazon delivers by default. I’ll pay extra to do this (by about two pounds, maximum – a spiritual outstretching of my change-filled palm to whatever eBay sellers are online at the time – but still). It’s worth holding off buying an ugly book and waiting for a nice cover version to come about.

Why? I don’t know. I can try and fob you off with some of the soft theories I have come up with to explain all this – a nice cover is indicative of a nice inner!; or, you’re more likely to read a nice-looking book if it’s aesthetically pleasant to pick it up!; or, let’s be honest, you only read to show off that you’re doing it on Instagram, and books with nice covers get better engagement! – but none of these really stick. The truth is that this is a compulsion.

I’m explaining my problem to James Fleming, editor of The Book Collector, the 68-year-old London journal about, well, book collecting. He understands. He had a sustained period where he couldn’t stop buying semi-ancient books about China, which in turn became buying semi-ancient books about the rest of the East, and he talks about that episode in his life like someone who kicked an incredibly serious habit. 

“Collectors are not always readers. If they open a book it’s often to look to see if there are titles there that they’re missing.”

Book collectors, as Fleming explains, aren’t generally focussed on the contents of the book, the literary ability of the writer, or how emotionally moving the prose is: they are in the game of collecting, and buying an exceedingly expensive, beautifully bound book is a brief moment of joy in a lifetime of longing and torture. For a moment, they have the item they crave above all – and then they’ll almost immediately move on and pick a new target. 

“Collectors,” Fleming says, “are not always readers. If they open a book it’s often to look in the bibliography to see if there are titles there that they’re missing.” 

Why do we collect things? Psychologists have various conflicting theories, probably because strange men with extensive marble collections aren’t exactly fascinating subjects of study, so nobody has looked into it enough. Some say it’s about the emotional re-experiencing of a damaged childhood; some say it's about the impossible quest of completing a collection. Freud was convinced, obviously, that it was all to do with toilet training.

As Fleming explains, even in the world of collecting, book collecting is its own high-intensity niche – collectors don’t typically care about the contents of the book, but rather its place in the canon; they often value the name of the artist who bound an especially rare book more than the author who wrote it (Paul Bonet is a favourite).

We’re both doing it to make our bookshelves look better. Neither of us are doing so for the good of our brain.

On eBay I’m eyeing up an American version of The Marriage Plot, and I keep scrolling until I find the American softcover I’ve already Googled – it’s got a beautiful font and a wedding ring like an infinity symbol, far superior to the silhouettes-and-early-aughts-colour-scheme of the UK version. The difference in price is about the same as an entire copy of Dracula bought from the back of a rusted Transit.

I’m no fancy collector yet, but the compulsion lies in wait. What’s going to look better on my shelf once I read it? What’s going to look better in my hands while I do? When I read a book I form a brief, sacred relationship with it: there it is, on my nightstand, trailing me to the front room, sitting on the coffee table, waiting for me. Do I want an ugly cover staring at me for a week? Or do I want something exemplary, and beautiful, that adds to the entire tome-in-the-hand feeling that comes with reading a real, physical book?

You know the answer already. The fancy cover version is already in a Jiffy bag and on its way through the post to me.

What did you think of this article? Email and let us know.

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin of 'Dracula' published by Four Corners Books in 2008 (illustrated by James Pyman, designed by John Morgan)

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more