America’s First Book

The Old South Church in Boston has sold one of its two copies of the Bay Psalm Book for $14.2 million dollars, making it the most expensive printed book in history. The Bay Psalm Book, printed in 1640, is the first book printed in North America. Eleven copies of the first edition are extant. While this is the highest price fetched for a printed book, it’s not the the most expensive book ever; a handwritten notebook of Leonardo da Vinci sold for $30.8 million in 1994.

A New Yorker blog post gives the history of the book and how it managed to come off the press just twenty years after the Pilgrims first landed at Plymouth Rock.

The sale is a bit disturbing in that it is another instance of public institutions placing historical and cultural important items into private hands. The church had every right and good reason to sell the copy, but the prospect that the book may no longer be available to researchers and the public is worrisome. Instead of auctioning it off into private hands, perhaps the church should have considered a direct sale to a library or museum. Such a sale would not have generated nearly as much money, but it would guarantee that the book remains available. Fortunately, the book was purchased by philanthropist David Rubenstein, who has announced plans to place the book on loan to libraries. But there is no guarantee that the book will remain available.

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