Unobtainable Books

I keep a wishlist of books that I want to read. It never gets too long. There are 28 entries in the list as of this writing, and having just reviewed them, I can probably eliminate half since the fond feelings I once had for them have passed. There are three levels to my reading wish list:

  1. Books that pique my interest. These are by far the vast majority of the books that make it onto the list. They are books that have somehow caught my eye. I’m uncertain if I actually want to read them, but they go on the list until I have time to investigate further. These books tend to be on the list for a long time because I don’t always investigate right away and the butterfly effect of reading often carries me off in other directions.
  2. Books I know I want to read. These are books I do not yet have in my possession, but that I know I want to read as soon as I do have them. They rarely stay on the list longer than the time it takes me to cash in an Audible credit, or have them delivered to my Kindle, or, if they are on paper, to the house.
Current wishlist sample
A sample of (audio) books on my current wishlist.

The third level of the list is more pernicious and sinister. Call it my List of Unobtainable Books. These are books that I have a great desire to obtain and read, and yet they seem virtually unobtainable. I might see one listed on Abe Books fro $900 and that is more than I am willing to spend, so the books remain out of my reach. The reason this level is so pernicious is that it feeds upon itself. The harder a book is to obtain, the more I want to read it. The more I want to read it, the harder it is for me to find.

At present, two such book collections glower at me from this level of my wishlist. The first is Arnold J. Toynbee’s 12-volume A Study of History. I first learned of these books years ago when reading Isaac Asimov’s autobiographies. (Fred Pohl, apparently, talked Asimov into joining a Toynbee fan club.) More recently, Toynbee made his appearance in Will and Ariel Durants’ A Dual Autobiography. The historians were mutual admirers of each other’s work. Even Asimov had a difficult time obtaining a complete set of the books. Now they seem to be almost impossible to find, at least in the places I’ve looked, unless you are willing to fork out what would potentially be thousands of dollars. A 2-volume abridgment of 12 books exists, but I’m not interested in abridgments (1).

The other collection is Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China. I first learned about this collection while reading Simon Winchester’s The Man Who Loved China. These books are also very difficult to locate and obtain. Whenever my sister enters a used books store, I get a text from her asking if there is anything I am looking for. “Any volume of Needham’s Science and Civilization in China,” I tell her. Recently, there was a near-hit. The bookshop owner told her that he used to have one, but it was sold.

Now and then I check various places on the Internet to see if perhaps any one of these volumes, Toynbee or Needham, is available for a reasonable price. Usually I am disappointed. But I try to look on the bright side: at least my list of unobtainable books is short.

(1) I am aware that there are editions of these books available from secondhand sellers on Amazon, as well as EBay and other sites. I’ve skimmed through many of them. Some seem reasonably priced, too, but these latter always seem to appear with no image and no corresponding description of the condition of said volume.


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