Things have now changed so radically in the rare book world – dragged along limply in the wake of the IT revolution – that, today, neither integer of Greene’s description pertains as it used to. For most book collectors – and there seem to be fewer and fewer of them – finding what you want is now so easy that the only real consideration is what you are able or willing to pay. Twenty-five years ago, first editions of Kerouac’s On the Road were both scarce and valuable. Nowadays they still cost a lot, but there are masses of them on offer (abebooks.com lists 103 of them, priced between £3.84 and 18,562.60). It may be that a similarly large number were out there in the past, but nobody knew where they were. You had to find them, encounter them serendipitously one at a time.
So two things have happened, and they threaten to cut our archetype off at the knees: “treasure” is now common, and “hunting” involves nothing more exciting or time-consuming than booting up a computer and surfing the rare book sites. You want to collect Conrad? You could build a virtually complete collection in the next hour or two. What the hell fun would that be?