I suspect you have to start noticing the loss of something for the idea to come into your head that maybe it should be described as rare. Nobody would think of applying the label “rare” to the sparrow — unless they lived in London where the birds have apparently decided to join urban flight and flit* to the suburbs and beyond. In London they are rare; in New York they are everywhere, including especially the bushes in the sunken subway entrance at Columbus Circle where you often suspect there must be a couple of loudspeakers broadcasting chirping. They are also often to be encountered in quite deep subway stations, where they seem content with their underground existence.

The Cambridge University Press blog FifteenEightyFour has a post about the origin of the rare book occasioned by the publication of David McKitterick’s book The Invention of Rare Books: Private Interest and Public Memory, 1600-1840. It seems that it took till the late 16th century for the concept to emerge, at the same time as we collectively woke up to the fact that there were a whole lot of books out there, forcing us to consider whether we might have to start worrying about disappearing texts.

The University of Washington, according to Atlas Obscura, has a collection of over 20,000 rare and special books. Their notification of this fact carries a small gallery of images showing a few of these books. If you want to see them, you’ll need to make an appointment. Their website can be found here.

Quaintly, one of the rarest books, Shadows from the Walls of Death is a volume published in 1874 in an edition of 100, intended to warn against the dangers  of arsenic-printed wallpapers. “Paris green” a color often favored in wallpapers had a significant arsenic content, and tended to flake off after a while. The author, Robert Clark Kedzie, wanted to help people identify dangerous wallpapers in their homes. His book consists of a title page and 8 page introduction followed by 86 sample of poisonous wallpapers. He sent copies of his book to libraries in Michigan. Unfortunately, by including samples of those arsenic papers, the book posed exactly the danger it was warning against. Today, only four copies of that book still exist, and unsurprisingly they’re treated very carefully. It is not recorded whether there were any consequences for the author, but he did live till 1902.


* What we call moving house in Scotland. It’s an old English word which, like the sparrow, has deserted the metropolitan center. It’s already in the OED, so isn’t available for notification in the Regional English drive.