Books are one of the commonest things we can find around us. They exist in various forms and volumes containing different types of information for various uses. They have come a long way and experienced several modifications since they were first mentioned in recorded history, circa 10th or 9th century BC. In all these years, books have been used to store and transmit information from one generation to another.
Thus, the rarest books are books that contain the oldest pieces of information known to man. These rare books cut across both sciences and the arts. The arts are classics that are forever celebrated, while for the sciences, recent and continuing discoveries in sciences and technological advancements may have rendered their content rudimentary; they are still valuable, with their historical significance and intrinsic value, we refer to them as the rarest books in the world.
The Oldest Books In The World Are Also The Rarest, Here They Are
15. Ptolemy’s Geographia Cosmographia
Claudius Ptolemy was many things while he lived: a mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, and poet. He lived in Egypt as at the time he wrote his book Geographia Cosmographia in Greek. The book compiled his geographical knowledge of the world in the 2nd-century Roman Empire. Claudia wrote the book by hand and also hand drew all the maps therein. He based the book on his model of a geocentric universe or Ptolemaic system (which postulated that the Earth is the center of the Universe and all the other planets revolved around it, including the sun.
Geographia Cosmographia found widespread acceptance amongst scholars in Ptolemy’s time and even about 1,400 years after he died. The book got translated into Latin. However, new scientific discoveries in geography in the years and centuries that followed came to disprove Claudius Ptolemy’s postulations in the book. This notwithstanding, the concept of longitude and latitude, which he introduced in the book, is still very much in use today for locating places across the earth’s surface.
14. The Gutenberg Bible
The Gutenberg Bible is as old as the printing press. It is one of the earliest books produced with movable metal printing machines in Europe. The bible, which Johannes Gutenberg printed in Mainz, Germany, was about 180 copies. However, only about 10 exists today, with the rest unaccounted for.
As it is typical with the world’s rarest books, the Gutenberg Bible commands a huge price. The book’s first recorded sale was in the year 1978 at the tune of $2.2 million, and 10 years after, an incomplete version of the bible sold for $5.4 million. A single page of the book can currently fetch about $100 000 depending on the relevance of the page/its content and how well preserved it is.
Bay Psalm Book
Holding the record as the first book to be printed in North America, the Bay Psalm Book came into existence in the year 1640 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As its name rightly suggests, it is a religious book that was used by settlers in the Massachusetts Bay colony in their church.
A London printer, Stephen Daye printed the psalm book after John Eliot, Thomas Welde, Richard Mather, and 30 other New England ministers had translated the original Hebrew version of the psalm to English. Following the printing of the first edition, several other editions followed, and for the next 100 years, the Bay Psalm Book was an integral part of the colony’s religious life. Currently, only about 11 copies can be accounted for, of which only 5 copies are complete—one out of these 11 copies sold for $14.2 million back in November 2013.
12. The ABC with the Pater noster, Aue, Credo, and .x. co[m]maundementes in Englysshe newly translated and set forth, at the kyngs most gracyouse commaundement
This is the only known children’s book that is also the oldest and, rightfully so, the rarest. Only one copy of the book was made and that copy is still in existence. It was printed by Richard Lant in the Old Bayly, London, between 1537 and 1542.
Unlike the other books mentioned here, whose individual pages sell for thousands of dollars, if not millions, this children’s educational book has no monetary value attached to it. There have not been any bids to buy it neither are the super-rich people of the world interested in keeping it for themselves.
11. The Tales of Beedle the Bard
This is a wizard classic most Harry Porter fans will be familiar with. The book is undoubtedly the newest in this collection, but it has a befitting place for its rarity. Only 7 copies of the book were initially released, and all 7 copies were handwritten. Of these 7 copies, 6 were given to people who are dear to the author, while 1 copy was sold for $3.98 million in a Sotheby’s auction in December 2007.
In December 2016, another copy of the book decorated with Rhodochrosite and a silver skull was sold in London by Sotheby for £368,750 about $467,000. This made it the highest amount to be paid for a modern book in recent times.
10. Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit
The Tale of Peter Rabbit was first written in 1902 and published by Frederick Warne & Co. The tale in the book was originally written for Potter’s former governess Annie Carter Moore’s son Noel Moore who was 5 years old. The book received wide acceptance, and since its first publication, it has been reprinted multiple times in 36 different languages. Overall, about 45 million copies have been sold too.
However, the original copy is one of the rarest books you will find. Beatrix published about 250 copies herself which she distributed to her friends and family members.
9. Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane and Other Poems
Though the author of this work died a pauper, his work is today celebrated as one of the greatest and earliest printed works in American literature. It’s a collection of poems mainly inspired by George Gordon Byron, the 6th Baron Byron. Poems in the book have themes centered on pride, love, and death.
The 40-page collection of poems was published in 50 limited copies by a printer named Calvin F. S. while Tamerlane was serving in the United States army. The publication, however, did not receive critical attention apart from a few listings in gazettes and catalogs. However, after the poet became popular with his poem “The Raven,” his other works began gaining attention. In 2009, a copy of the first edition sold for $662,500, which ironically is a lot of money compared to what Tamarlane made in his lifetime.
8. Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time
Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time is a collection of short fiction stories about Nick Adams’s character in the 1920s. The book is a 32-page publication of Paris company, Three Mountains Press, in 1924 when it was originally titled in our time. About 300 copies were published, but only 170 copies were released for sale. By 1925, Boni & Liveright published the American edition, which is a 136-page book.
7. El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (Don Quixote)
This novel is regarded as the greatest fiction ever written by Miguel de Cervantes, who is, without doubt, one of the greatest Spanish writers to have lived. He is believed to have written the novel while in prison after the Spanish Armada locked him up.
Don Quixote was first published in the year 1605 (part 1), and almost 10 years later, the second part of the novel was published in 1615. But in between when the first publication was made, the novel was translated into English in 1612 for the first publication and later on 1620 for the second.
6. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a fantasy novel that was published in 1865 by Macmillan Publishers Ltd. The novel tells the story of a young girl who fell through a rabbit hole and entered a fantasy world inhabited by unique anthropomorphic beings. The book is divided into 12 interesting chapters that explored all the adventures of Alice and her return.
Of the about 2000 copies of the book released in 1865, only 25 copies of the original copies have been accounted for. The novel has also been adapted into several films and shown in cinemas.
Ulysses is one of the newest yet rarest books in the world right now. Compared to some of the other books we have here, Ulysses is just about a century old. The novel, which Shakespeare and Company published, was set in Dublin, the capital and largest city in Ireland, between 16–17 June 1904. It is divided into 4 parts, with each part containing several episodes.
When the novel was published, there were about 1000 copies of it, and because of its wide acceptance, the novel has been adapted to theatre plays, films, television shows, and even an audio version. In 2009, one of the copies of the book sold for $442 900.
4. Shakespeare’s First Folio
William Shakespeare’s works make a significant portion of the greatest collection of western literature. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest English playwrights, poets, and actors whose works have a lot of influence in the world even after 400 years of his death. His First Folio contains about 36 plays carefully selected by his friends and business associates.
About 750 copies were made when it was published, but currently, only 240 copies have been accounted for. John Heminges and Henry Condell, Shakespeare’s friends, came together and decided to have a compilation of Shakespeare’s most notable stories. Thus, even though Shakespeare died in 1616, his First Folio was published in 1623, 7 years after his death.
3. Nicolaus Copernicus’ On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres
Unlike other books listed here, which the authors published while living, hale and hearty, Nicolaus Copernicus published and released his Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres when he was on his death bed and almost dying. He did this to avoid being punished for heresy because his book proposed a heliocentric universe that was hard to believe. A heliocentric universe is one where the sun is in the center of the universe, and every other planet, including our earth, revolves around the sun. Of course, the book contradicted Ptolemy’s geocentric system, which had already come to be accepted in several generations at that time.
About 260 copies of the book exist, and a copy can cost as much as $2 million. One of the copies is in the custody of Miguel de Benavides Library, the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines.
2. Birds of America – Yale University
This rare book was borne out of John James Audubon’s desire to paint every bird in North America. He embarked on the project sometime in 1827. He collected specimens himself and others sent to him by John Kirk Townsend from the 1834 expedition of Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth with Thomas Nuttall. When he was done with the work in 1838, 39*26 inches tall 435-page hand-colored pictures of 1,037 birds in North America emerged.
Though 120 complete sets of the book were initially completed, only about 107 copies owned by institutions are recorded to still be in existence. The remaining 13 complete sets are believed to be in private ownership. In 2018, one copy of the original book put up in a New York auction, sold for about $9.65 million.
1. The Codex of Leicester
Codex Leicester is a leather-bound notebook that contains the scientific writings of the Italian polymath of the High Renaissance – Leonardo da Vinci. He wrote the book sometime between 1504–1508 as he made scientific observations bothering astronomy, water, air, fossils, and celestial light.
After Leonardo, the book was acquired by Guglielmo Della Porta, Michelangelo’s student, for some time, followed by Giuseppe Ghezzi (until 1719), then Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester, who bought it in the year 1719. The Earl kept the book in his custody till 1759 when it was kept in the custody of Leicester estate till 1980. American businessman Armand Hammer acquired the book in 1980 and kept it till 1990 before it was kept in the custody of Armand Hammer’s Estate. By 1994, American businessman and co-founder of Microsoft – Bill Gates, bought the book for a whopping $30,802,500. This amount has been adjusted for inflation to be the equivalent of $53,222,898.79 in recent time.
Recap of the 15 Rarest Book Today and Where you can find them
- The Codex of Leicester – Only one copy exists, and it is privately owned by Bill Gates
- Birds of America – Yale University – Liverpool Central Library
- Nicolaus Copernicus’ On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres – Miguel de Benavides Library, the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines.
- Shakespeare’s First Folio – Folger Shakespeare Library
- Ulysses – Online at Lily Library
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Morgan Library & Museum
- El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (Don Quixote)
- Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time – Bibliothèque nationale de France
- Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane and Other Poems – The Huntington Library
- Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit – Morgan Library & Museum New York City, New York
- The Tales of Beedle the Bard – Privately owned
- The ABC with the Pater noster, Aue, Credo, and .x. co[m]maundementes in Englysshe newly translated and set forth, at the kyngs most gracyouse commaundement
- Bay Psalm Book – The Library of Congress
- The Gutenberg Bible – New York Public Library
- Ptolemy’s Geographia Cosmographia – James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota