Here’s the basic story: in 1638, the Reverend Joseph Glover and family set sail for the new world. Glover died on the journey, but Stephen Daye survived and, along with Glover’s widow, printed the first documents in the American colonies. The first thing they printed was supposedly The Freeman’s Oath — essentially a one-sheet — but after that, they printed The Bay Psalm Book, which is widely regarded as the first book published in the colonies (coming 20 years after the arrival of the Pilgrims, no less). 1700 were printed, but only 11 remain in existence; the Old South Church in Boston is auctioning off their copy today and it could fetch $30 million. That would make it the most valuable book in the world (monetarily); people often think The Gutenberg Bible is up there at No. 1, but that only sold for $4.9 million back in 1987. Here’s one look (from January 2012) at the most valuable books in the world; here’s another. (It should be noted that Bill Gates bought the one and only copy of Da Vinci’s Codex Leicester in 1994 for $30.8 million; it should also be noted that there are different categories of book sales when doing these rankings — for a printed book, the record seems to be James Audubon’s Birds of America.)
As for the value of The Bay Psalm Book, this is probably the best read you’ll find. In addition to being the first thing published in what later became America, which marks it as emblematic of the arrival of Western civilization, it also has an eccentric charm because it “abounds with typographical errors” and likely came from someone (Daye) “wholly unacquainted with punctuation.” The language has an “odd Puritan ring to it,” which historians consider “an acquired taste.”
David Redden, who runs book auctions for Sotheby’s, explained the value and appeal of the book pretty simply:
“It was an act of independence going to Massachusetts and setting up their own society with their own version of Christianity, and I think you can draw a pretty direct line ultimately to the events of 1776.”
Old South Church actually has two of the 11 copies in existence, but won’t be selling off the second one. Here’s the church’s official statement on the sale of one of the books. Old South also has an entire digital copy to browse the different psalms. An interesting element from that New Yorker story (first link) is that many people associated with churches measure out their life not in years, or career years, but how many different hymnals they worked under. The church organist interviewed there has 60 years of service, which is roughly five different hymnals. America was only truly born in 1776, but has hundreds of different hymnals; the fact that The Bay Psalm Book was the first gives it an immense amount of gravitas. Indeed, the book traces America’s ‘seesaw religious history.’
This is shoddily shot, but the hymns are honestly beautiful:
Here’s the Sotheby’s page; you can watch the auction live (7pm, I believe) on the Old South Church website. If you’d like to read even more about the true value of the book, check this op-ed from The New York Times this past weekend. Also, contextually it’s likely important to know and understand that when The Bay Psalm Book travels, it does so in a locked briefcase with a bodyguard that looks like a late-1980s WWF valet:
My overall take? I think the idea of dropping $30 million on a book is quite a large sum and maybe a tad preposterous, but I also struggled to buy a 14-lb. Thanksgiving turkey earlier this week, so maybe my financial ideas are not exactly mature just yet. If you’re going to drop $30 million on a book, The Bay Psalm Book seems like a fairly logical choice. It’s the first book published in America, which is a culture that, since its inception, has valued the notion of being first or going first (ever been on a YouTube comments page?). That’s some delicious irony. We’re about to make the first into the most valuable. Isn’t that how the Reverend Joe Glover would have wanted it? (Probably not, since he never saw America.) I would certainly pay more for the first published collection of psalms, in a hymnal form, in the New World than I would for a book of identified birds — but that’s just me, potentially.