The Importance of Being a Bibliophile

NOTE: This post was originally written in April of 2012.

Wow, time flies when you’re cataloging books! I’ve been away from the blog for about two weeks, knee deep in a recently acquired World War I collection, and the project is still only about 1/4 completed.

Stay tuned for a giant subject list of material ranging from modern accounts of The Great War, to contemporary books and ephemera. Also peppered throughout are various peripheral items, and a few sub-categories (e.g., women during the war, African-Americans during the war, etc.).

Working through this collection has me marveling at the power of a single individual to collect and curate. While much of the material is not particularly scarce, the scope of the collection is grand (about 2,000 volumes), and the previous owner maintained a careful cataloging system of his own to keep track of what books he owned, and where they were. Any well-known work pertaining to WWI is represented in the collection, sometimes several times over, and many obscure titles as well, plus a smattering of other military history (Civil War, WWII, Vietnam, etc.).

A few highlights so far: a history of a company in the American Expeditionary Forces, inscribed collectively by the company to the parents of a fallen soldier; a copy of Lawson’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo signed by 18 members of the Doolittle Raiders; several issues of the scarce WWI periodical ‘Gas Attack’…

This is the tip of what is quite a large iceberg. Also included in this gentleman’s collection were numerous periodicals on everything from American history to automobiles, from the U.S. military to railroads… and that’s just in the part of the collection I’m handling.

He also collected vintage toys and advertising, war memorabilia (including original photographs, various textiles sewn by French women during WWI, military medals, portraits of soldiers, etc.), phonographs, furniture…

The capacity for people to collect is an amazing one. Those who excel at it often exceed professional historians and archivists in the scope of their activities. Indeed, within this collection is evidence that the owner aided military historians by providing otherwise unavailable source material for books and articles. The urge to preserve is not one we all share, but for those of us who do, the compulsion is an easy one to understand. The importance of scarce items, especially those that hold particular historical value, need not be explained to our fellow addicts.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of viewing a well-chosen collection knows that its quality is immediately apparent. The shelves upon which the books rest seem almost to glow with a borrowed radiance. Closer inspection only increases the level of excitement. The level of discernment becomes apparent in the condition of each volume, in the care with which they were organized on each shelf, in the careful insertion of related material within certain volumes.

Everything, even those things easily obtained, has been elevated to a higher status. You can almost hear a voice saying, “Sure, Speer’s Inside the Third Reich is nothing special. But this is my copy, the best one I could find in my 45 years collecting. I first read a tattered paperback copy, then found a hardcover missing the jacket at a thrift shop, and finally upgraded to a first edition in jacket, and one in exceptional condition. I bet it’s among the best copies you’ve seen.”

And there’s the rub.

Collecting books actually has very little to do with intrinsic value at the outset. It has very much to do with the peculiar tastes and tendencies of the collector. Because, in a very real way, your collection is who you are. It is a complex, living document of your own existence.

I often think of my bookstore in this way. I look down the rows of shelves and say, “Everything here is part of a set of footprints. Looking at the rows of books is like reading a menu of what we’ve been up to as a society recently. What authors people recognize. What local lore has remained in our collective consciousness. What historical figures intrigue us. What we wish we were brave enough to do, but read about instead. What books from our childhood we still cherish. What we view as beautiful, or holy, or worth holding onto.”

The tricky part is making other people think that way too. But that’s my job, and I don’t think I’d rather do anything else.

Published in: on June 24, 2013 at 11:40 AM  Leave a Comment  
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