The cover of Auctions, a book from the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series. It has a black background and three hands holding bidding paddles.

What you see: Auctions, *$15.95. from The MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series.

Does it fit in my purse? Yes, with ease.

Cut to the chase. Should I buy this book? Yes, but casual readers might find it tough going in places.

Auctions paid for itself in the preface, where it mentioned in passing that the Roman Empire had been sold at auction.

Wait, what?

Auctions doesn’t dwell on this momentous sale, mentioning it for the second and final time on page 2 where it notes the Roman Empire was sold in AD 193, following the overthrow of the emperor. But a spin around the web shows it’s true.

A detour for context: The Praetorian Guard killed Emperor Pertinax and proceeded to sell the throne to the highest bidder. Didius Julianus claimed it by pledging 25,000 sesterces to every soldier, or about 200 million sesterces total.

He bought himself a place in the historical record, but his failure to make good on his winning bid ensured his tenure would be short and troubled.

Didius Julianus ruled Rome from March 28 to June 1, when he was assassinated by a soldier. He was the second to steer the city in what became known as the Year of the Five Emperors.

Anyway. Not being a student of the classics or Ancient Rome, I was unaware of this fact before it jumped out of Auctions and bit me on the nose. If I hadn’t bought this book, I might never have learned of it.

The rest of the book is strong, albeit a bit dry. The authors steer clear of examining the emotions that drive people to bid while detailing the strategies people can use in various contexts.

Auctions is a textbook example of a book that does what it says on the box–it gives a succinct but comprehensive overview of the topic, chronicling the many types of auctions and their uses.

While it glides along admirably well, most people would not regard Auctions as beach reading. (Spoiler alert: I am not most people, and I did consider this fun-time reading.) The book contains tables and figures, and I needed to reread certain passages more than once before I was sure I understood them.

That said, Auctions is enlightening and it deserves a place on the shelf of anyone who cares about auctions and the ways in which they can play out. It explains why the auction format endures in the marketplace–it’s an effective tool for equating demand and supply. It talks about how bidders can collude, and how sellers can thwart that behavior. It pulls in game theory, and the prisoner’s dilemma. It poses theoreticals that illustrate bidding strategies.

It also weaves in entertaining takes on the form, such as the Truth or Consequences auction held annually at the Vetro Glassblowing Studio and Gallery. The auctioneers uphold the reserve price–the minimum bid an artist will accept for a glass artwork–in dramatic fashion. If no one bids high enough, a so-called “glass guillotine” smashes it.

Even if you’re long-marinated in the auction world, you will learn something new from Auctions. You’ll also find it a handy reference work.

Worth buying new, at full price.

How to buy Auctions: Please purchase it from an independent bookstore near you. You can also order it online from the MIT Press.

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* I spotted Auctions in the wild, while wandering the MIT COOP at Kendall Square, and bought it on sight.

Auctions was originally published in January 2016.

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