Column Editor: Thomas W. Leonhardt (Retired, Eugene, OR 97404)
On April 16, I attended a special reception at the Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library on the Reed College campus. The winners of the 2013 Reed College Book Collecting Contest, co-sponsored by the Himes & Duniway Society, were announced and all participants were honored and asked to say a few words about their collections. The essays with annotated bibliographies are available (five essays at this writing) at http://www.himesduniway.org/. “This contest is a part of a nationwide college book collecting contest with the local winner entered as a participant in the The National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest. This national level contest is supported by the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA), the Fellowship of American Bibliophilic Societies (FABS), the Center for the Book and the Rare Books and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress.” (http://www.himesduniway.org/)
When you go to the Website and read those essays, you will be inspired and humbled by the efforts of these college students. The winning essay, “How to be Alone,” is by Mack Sullivan. Just as I thought that I had my own list (not annotated) of books to last me, in retirement, for the rest of my life, I come across this incredibly thoughtful, articulate, and learned essay and have extended my list but in translation having never acquired much Latin and not even a smattering of Greek.
The other essays are winners, too, either a second or third prize or honorable mention (all of the remaining essays). There are no losers in this contest. Only one will be entered in the national contest but in competitions of this sort, as acknowledged by the judges, the difference between placements are razor thin. Read the essays and decide for yourself and then articulate the reasons for your choices. You will then see for yourself to understand the difficulties that faced the judges.
One of the students collects illustrated books and not necessarily first editions. For those who fear that deep pockets are a hindrance to collecting, let this be an encouraging note. It helps if the book is in good condition and that all of the illustrations are intact, but beyond that, it is a matter of personal taste. One need not restrict oneself to one’s native language, English, for example, in order to collect attractively illustrated books. Children’s books represent most of the current illustrated books, especially fiction, but there are many exceptions. This student, wanting to encourage support of a local press, gave away copies of illustrated books published by Good Ink, an imprint of Scout Books (www.scoutbooks.com), a Portland, Oregon publisher. The book that I chose is The Story of an Hour and other Stories, by Kate Chopin and illustrated by Gemma Correll.
The day after the reception, I had to fly to Boston for a meeting. I don’t have a Nook or a Kindle, preferring paperbacks when I travel. The Story of an Hour fit in my shirt pocket and I didn’t have to power it down when the plane’s cabin doors were closed. Instead, I clicked on the overhead reading light and leaned back to enjoy Kate Chopin’s sense of humor. She would have made much of modern America.
College students are not only reading, they are collecting their favorite books and thinking about what they collect and why and continue. Aesthetics apply to the illustrated books but the other collections are reflections of intellectual interests and a drive to be educated beyond the classroom. These students, I call them curious undergraduates, are the ones I used to buy for. The students I met and listened to at Reed were living proof that curious (intellectually, that is) undergraduates exist. The national book collecting contest is testimony that we are still producing thoughtful readers and they are not satisfied with having hundreds of books on an eBook reader. Rather, they are content with a smaller number on their shelves where they can be seen, pulled off the shelf at will, held lovingly, opened randomly, perhaps to a hand-notated passage, and then placed gently back on the shelf. A couple of the students noted that some of their favorites had come apart from use and annotation and had to be replaced. Their collections are not museums of books that look good on the shelf but living things full of ideas, information, and sustenance as in “Season to taste: A love affair in cookbooks,” by Stephanie Bastek.
More than a decade ago I had occasion to go to Reed College for meetings in the library and would arrive before the staff got to work. The library would be open and I would find students there sleeping, reading, studying, and writing. I would head for the area where the “little magazines” were shelved, a luxury coming from a technical university, and after choosing a couple of those inviting literary journals, would plop myself down in an overstuffed chair situated among other comfortable chairs and sofas, and read until time for my meeting.
I have no idea how many college and university libraries I have visited but it’s more than a handful and of them all, Reed has the most bookish atmosphere. I get the feeling that there are nothing but curious undergraduates there and that it is understood that to be well educated is to read broadly and engage in intellectual and not so intellectual discussions that come from that reading and from the heart as well as the head. And in such an atmosphere, it is a matter of course to subscribe to Anthony Powell’s notion that Books Do Furnish a Room. And it matters which books furnish that room and they must be books that matter, classic titles along with perhaps idiosyncratic titles that have special meaning for the reader. Reading is, after all, a highly personal, private activity.
Some time ago at a conference in which information technology was the theme, a speaker somewhat derisively referred to books as outmoded models of linear thinking. The preferred way to read, to that speaker, was on a computer. The irony, of course, is that reading on a screen that moves up and down or left to right, is literally linear and is a throwback to the scrolls of yore that were made obsolete by the codex, a superior way to present written literature in the age of manuscripts and later when moveable type became available.
I would not be surprised to learn that some, perhaps a majority, of these Reed essayists own eBook readers and have assigned them a specific role, but that is not what they turn to as they pursue their bookish passions. They want to see those trusted, cherished companions on bookshelves, piled on desks, littering any available plane surface so that at a whim, the desired volume can be picked up, readily recognized by the size and the binding or dust jacket, and explored anew.
Download as many books as you care to but once the machine is turned off, the ethereal shadows of books are out of sight and out of mind.
Samuel Johnson (I think it was he) noted that one can learn a lot simply by reading the spines of books. Try it sometime and you will see what I think he meant. What he didn’t say is that when we visit the homes or offices of friends and colleagues, we also make certain judgments by reading the spines of the books we find there. Hmm, three rows of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, Happiness is a Warm Puppy, and the Collected Poems of Rod McKuen. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the accompanying essay and annotated bibliography and don’t despair when those very titles disappear into a portable reading device that keeps them safe, out of sight, and out of mind.