Rarest Books in the World and Where to Find Them

Mar 2, 2020

Whether you’re an avid reader or a less than enthusiastic page-turner, books can take you to a place that otherwise couldn’t be seen. They are like handheld portals that can sweep even the most unadventurous of us off our feet and into new worlds. Since these physical expressions of humanity are only held together with paper and ink, it is no wonder why some books are so coveted. Before the age of technology and e-books, a work only lasted as long as its bindings held. First editions and signed copies became more and more scarce as time trudged forward. These are the conditions in which the world’s rarest books were born. This list of rare books are brought to you by https://shapero.com/  

1. The Birds of America

A series of sections published in London between the years 1827 and 1838. This unique set of prints were created by a fellow named James Audubon who was enthralled with the aspect of painting birds from America. He made it his life’s goal to feature every species he found; this ended up being 435 separate birds, six of which are extinct today. Each of these were hand-painted, mainly in Audubon’s watercolor style, and made to be life-sized. As you could imagine, this took plenty of custom, handmade paper to accommodate; the biggest measuring about 40 inches tall and 29 inches wide. Today, only 120 complete sets of this amazingly illustrated book exist. One of which can be found in Orange, Texas at the Stark Museum of Art.

2. In Our Time

Or, more appropriately titled, “in our time” with all lowercase letters. This was a collection of short stories authored by Ernest Hemingway. Its first publication came in 1924 with only 31 pages making up the entire book. Originally, there were only 170 copies made and distributed; these first editions came with the lowercase title and a very unique styling from Three Mountain Press’ owner Bill Bird. A year later, the second edition with a handful of new stories, as well as an uppercase title, was released. This version was modified and reprinted numerous times. If you are looking to find the rare original, then you must go to Paris, France’s François-Mitterrand Library.

3. Ulysses

A popular book even for today’s standards. With over eighteen editions circulated around the world, there is few who do not know of this literary masterpiece written by James Joyce. The first publication was run in 1922 with the help of Sylvia Beach and her bookstore Shakespeare and Company. From this store 1000 copies were printed with 750 of those being self-numbered. Out of that majority, only 100 were further signed. Being the controversial book that it was for featuring more intense scenes than the times were used to, the U.S. and many other countries were quick to ban it. All throughout the 1920s copies of the work were burned by the United States Post Office Department. It wasn’t until a decade later that “Ulysses” was finally able to be read by Americans. Ironically, a signed and numbered version of the book can be found right in the U.S. today; go to Raptis Rare Books in Palm Beach, Florida.

4. The Tale of Peter Rabbit

This children’s book can be remembered by many as a beloved favorite. It’s hard to imagine that there can be a rare version out there, but don’t underestimate the power of circumstance. Before Beatrix Potter got the renown that she deserved, many publishing companies turned their back on her work. In fact, no one would take her classic tale of the mischievous Peter Rabbit. Thus, it was up to Potter to publish it all on her own. In 1901, she made 250 copies and gifted them to friends and family. After having heard of this achievement Frederick Warne & Co. agreed to continue the publishing in 1902. It was no surprise that the story grew into a huge success, and still garners appreciation today. If you are seeking one of those original 250, then simply head to New York City, New York and look for the Morgan Library and Museum.

5. First Folio

This was a compilation of 36 plays constructed by William Shakespeare. It is largely regarded as the first published reliable source when it comes to most of the plays he had written. The folio was prepared by two friends of Shakespeare, John Heming and Henry Condell, after his death sometime between 1622 and 1623. It is speculated that only 750 copies were ever made with a meager 235 surviving to present day. Even out of these surviving copies, only 40 are complete versions; most are unsurprisingly damaged due to the passage of time, however, even a single section of this publication is a sight to behold. It is a glimpse back in time over multiple centuries. To experience it in full, you’ll have to go to Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

6. Gutenberg Bible

Speaking of a peek back into history, think back to the first ever printing press. An invention made by Johannes Gutenberg back in the 1450s. This device was used to first take on the immense task of printing the Latin version of the Vulgate – the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament. This hefty book would from then on be known as the Gutenberg Bible. As of today, only around 49 known copies exist. If you were to seek out these copies, you would find that only 21 out of the 49 are complete. Since this work is a revered scripture by some, it is seen as highly prized and coveted. Some versions even have the special history of being handled by past popes. Surprisingly, you can find two copies of this bible in Paris, France at the François-Mitterrand Library where they feature both the paper and vellum versions.

7. Tamerlane and Other Poems

Edger Allan Poe is a world-renown poet that can be seen represented in schools everywhere. However, did you know that his first publication was presented without his name? Back in 1827, when Poe was merely 18 years old, he paid a boy around the same age as him to print a set of poems he had written. The piece was only 40 pages and lacked the unique experience people expect from Poe today, but it was his first historical step into the medium. Sadly, the work was a large failure. It only had 50 copies ever printed; none of which got any attention back in the day. As of today, merely 12 or less of these books remain. One can be found in San Marino, California at The Huntington.