CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — THE first English-language book printed in the New World is scheduled to be auctioned on Tuesday by Sotheby’s of New York. It’s expected to command between $15 million and $30 million — more than anyone, anywhere, has ever paid for a printed book.
Seventeen hundred copies of “The Whole Booke of Psalmes” were printed in Cambridge, Mass., in 1640; only 11 survive, making it scarcer than the Gutenberg Bible, of which there are 48 known copies. Five of the surviving copies of “The Whole Booke of Psalmes,” also known as the “Bay Psalm Book,” come from a collection begun by Thomas Prince. Prince was minister of Boston’s Old South Meeting House, the church where Benjamin Franklin and his sister Jane were baptized in 1706 and 1712.
Benjamin Franklin founded the first lending library in America, in Philadelphia, in 1731. Two years later, for Jane’s 21st birthday, he sent her a three-volume collection called “The Ladies’ Library,” to start her own.
Thomas Prince, stirred by the same spirit, founded a library, too. He kept his more than 2,000 books in a room in the church’s steeple, under the belfry, in boxes and barrels, for anyone to read, if never to remove. Inside his books, he liked to glue his bookplate:
This Book belongs to
The New-England Library,
Begun to be collected by Thomas Prince, upon his entring Harvard-College, July 6, 1703; and was given by said Prince, to remain therein for ever.
“The Whole Booke of Psalmes” is a collection of 150 psalms, in verse. In the 1630s, Puritan intellectuals in New England, believing the King James translation of the Bible to be corrupt, retranslated the psalms from Hebrew into English. Since they wanted the psalms to be sung, they set them to meter. They cared more about piety than poetry. As the Boston minister John Cotton, one of the translators, explained, “If therefore the verses are not always so smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect; let them consider that God’s Altar needs not our polishings.”
Others favored more polishing. The first “improved” edition appeared in 1647, just seven years after the original. Thomas Prince’s own “Revised and Improved” translation was published in 1758, in time for one of his psalms to be read over his grave. In the King James, the 37th psalm promises that “the meeke shall inherite the earth.” In the Bay Psalm Book, “meek ones the inheritance/shall of the earth possesse.” In Prince: “the meek and humble shall/the earth as heirs possess.” Smooth and elegant these psalms are not.
In 1866, the Old South Meeting House gave the Prince collection to the Boston Public Library for safekeeping. There followed a certain amount of jiggery-pokery. One copy of “The Whole Booke of Psalmes” ended up in the hands of a mayor of Boston. After his death, when his estate announced plans to auction it, the deacons of Old South filed suit, claiming the church still owned the book. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court sided with the mayor’s heirs, and the book was sold for $1,025, a sum so staggering that the story was reported in The New York Times.
Another copy was auctioned in 1879; it was bought for $1,200 by Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in America. That copy was auctioned again in 1947, when it commanded $151,000, breaking a record. The copy of the Bay Psalm book that Sotheby’s is set to auction this week comes from the Prince library, too. In protest of its sale, the Old South’s historian resigned.
“The Whole Book of Psalms” is less a book than a ruin — the remains of another age.
More rare and endangered than old books, lately, are bookstores and public libraries. In the United States, more than a thousand bookstores closed between 2000 and 2007. Borders, which owned more than 1,200 bookstores in 2003, shut the doors to the last of them in 2011. Public libraries in nearly every state have suffered budget cuts. Most have reduced hours and services; others have sold off books. Some libraries have merged; others have privatized. Two years ago, the American Library Association issued a task force report called “Keeping Public Libraries Public.” In an age of library downsizing, a nonprofit in Wisconsin makes Little Free Libraries, wooden boxes not much bigger than a mailbox, to put up in neighborhoods, for book swapping. They’re inspired. But they’re not buildings; they’re boxes.
In 1785, Benjamin Franklin shipped to the town of Franklin, Mass. — the first town of many named in his honor — 116 books for a public library. His sister Jane, who never went to school and never learned to spell, asked him to send her a list of those books. “My Reason for this Request is I have a grat deal of time on my hands,” she explained. “I Love Reading …and I dont doubt I can Borrow of won and another of my Acquaintance.” Then she set about trying to read every book on that list, from Locke to Montesquieu, from Blackstone to Newton.
In Franklin, Mass., those books — the gift from Benjamin Franklin — are still there, in the town library. They are locked in a cabinet. A few years back, the library’s board, citing a lack of funds for the care of rare books, decided that the door to that cabinet must never be opened. None of those books will ever be read again.
Jill Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard, a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author, most recently, of “Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin