'Snowy Owl' from John James Audubon's Birds of America © Reuters

It is possible to build up a library on an ereader. Equally, you could insist on talking to your friends only via Skype and taking “holidays” that consisted of exploring foreign capitals on Google Street View.

Words are just one element of a book and not always the best part. Books as physical objects have a charm that also comes from typography, illustration, format and back-story. That is why collecting books can be such a deep source of pleasure.

A natural history book, John James Audubon’s Birds of America (printed 1827-38), is one of the trophy assets of the hobby. The wildlife artist’s stylised evocations of avifauna are stunning, even when you know he worked from dead specimens, which were shot and propped up on wires. The huge “double elephant” format, which allowed Audubon to represent eagles and flamingos life size, adds to the volume’s appeal.

David Goldthorpe, head of books at Sotheby’s, the auction house, sold a Birds of America for £7.3m a few years ago. He says it was “the best thing I have ever done professionally”. The book, which betokens the opening up of the American west, “occupies a space between natural history and art, and contains the idea [that] anything is possible”.

Goldthorpe also extols The Birds of Great Britain, produced by John Gould, a Victorian ornithologist whose illustrators included Edward Lear, the humorist and artist. I think the illustrations are prissy compared with Audubon’s expansive work. Not that I have £40,000 in fun money to spend on a copy anyway.

My own stack of natural history books is of more modest value. I have never paid more than £200 for a book. This was for Shorelands Summer Diary, by CF Tunnicliffe, the 20th-century wildlife artist, beautifully illustrated with pictures of birds around his Welsh home. No one has ever captured the fierce otherness of a peregrine falcon so well.

Most of my collection of New Naturalists, a series of hardbacks with pleasantly old-fashioned photographs, cost £30-£80 each. I only buy first editions with dust jackets designed by Clifford and Rosemary Ellis, the graphic artists. I don’t bother with later editions that lack the Ellis’s magic touch. For me, these early New Naturalists evoke an innocent postwar era of small boys chasing butterflies on England’s South Downs.

'American Flamingo' from John James Audubon's Birds of America © Art Reserve/Alamy

It is nerdy to define your area of interest so tightly. But book collecting is a nerdy activity. If you don’t set tight parameters, the whole business can get out of hand. I recently sold or dumped several hundred volumes, including a brace of monographs on crane flies that once seemed like must-haves.

I have hung on to a small group distinguished by the weirdness of their subject matter. These include a Victorian book on sea monsters whose cover is adorned with a picture of an octopus devouring a Pacific islander. I also possess a field guide the British Museum produced for would-be natural historians in 1904 with a helpful illustrated section on how to skin a tiger.

Goldthorpe says the market for Edwardian and Victorian books of the kind that fill second-hand bookshops in British cathedral cities is limited. There is no demand for the novels of Edward Bulwer-Lytton despite his service to humanity in first writing the words, “It was a dark and stormy night”.

Books produced during the infancy of the European printing industry are valuable by virtue of being scarce and historic. Volumes produced before 1500 are known as incunabula, meaning “swaddling clothes”. Gutenberg Bibles merit the title “priceless” because they do not appear on the open market. If they did, they would be worth tens of millions. Hand-operated presses are still used to produce short runs of handmade books, spawning another subsector of book collecting I investigated with a trip to Collinge & Clark, a small specialist shop in London’s Bloomsbury. This furnished the outside location for Black Books, a nineties TV sitcom about a misanthropic bookseller who would rather read his wares than sell them.

Oliver Clark, the proprietor, is friendlier, despite admitting he sometimes “hates books and hates customers”. His life is complicated by regular visits from fans of the TV series from the Czech Republic, where it is unaccountably popular. He bought my complete 1941 set of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, thereby relieving me of the guilt that comes from owning books I shall never read.

The gold standard for collectors of private press books in the UK is The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer now newly imprinted, published by the Kelmscott Press in 1896. This gorgeous work was produced by William Morris, a British artist and designer who aspired to revive craftsmanship against the tide of Victorian mass production. Copies sell for £40,000 apiece.

The Kelmscott Chaucer
The Kelmscott Chaucer, 1896 © Corbis

Morris inspired the Pear Tree Press in Sussex, England. Its Frescoes from Buried Temples reflects the influence of Piranesi, the Italian etcher, and is worth around £4,000 a pop. I have a copy of this for the sole reason that the Pear Tree Press was run by my great-grandfather, James. A picture of him operating his Albion press hangs on my wall. Clark says that the same virtually indestructible machine is still used by many hand printers.

I failed to sell Clark a two-volume set of a 1733 edition of the works of Matthew Prior, an obscure poet. I thought this was worth £1,000. Clark did not. But he scored points for erudition by spotting that the first volume had a bawdy poem inscribed on the flyleaf by William Ibbett, the Edwardian poet.

Such insights into the lives of previous owners are part of the appeal of old books. I also own a cheap 1758 Pilgrim’s Progress. A looping child’s copperplate states “Elizabeth Dench Her Book Aged 10”. It adds: “Poor Puss Died November 1759”, just as entries in the Bible of the Dench family would have recorded human births and, inevitably, many infant deaths. History made real.

Jonathan Guthrie is the FT’s City editor

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