Like many book collectors, when I look at my shelves, I see stories – stories of friends and family, some sadly lost; of travels; of serendipity or single-minded pursuit; of gifts; of encounters with long-dead readers via their cast-off possessions; of discoveries, relationships, and connections. The enjoyment of browsing an estate sale attic or finding a book at a library sale formerly owned by a friend motivates much of my collecting. Growing up as part of the third generation of my family to live in the university town of Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, I had ample opportunity as a young bibliophile to meet people – academics and otherwise – who loved writing, reading, talking about, and collecting books. As my circles of acquaintance grew, I found that many overlapped, sometimes across lifetimes. I started to see friendships and family sagas played out in inscriptions in the volumes laid out at public library sales, and a growing interest in ephemera broadened those possibilities for connecting the dots. I would hear of a couple who had lived down the block long before I was born and had written beloved children’s books, then I would find one of their titles at a sale a week later. I would come across a self-published volume of surrealist poetry by a friend’s father, whom until then I had only thought of as a mild-mannered attorney. I came to know my community, and myself, through books, and though I now live in Michigan my collecting habits and principles remain the same. If the item tells an intriguing story, or if I was led to it in an unexpected way, I’ll make room for it on my shelves.
S[i]r Martin Marr-all: or, The Feign’d Innocence. A Comedy. As it is Acted By Their Majesties Servants.
John Dryden (1631-1700). London: Printed for Henry Herringman, and are to be sold by Francis Saunders, at the Blue Anchor in the Lower Walk of the New-Exchange, 1691.
I found this volume, the oldest in my collection, at an estate sale in Urbana, Illinois, at the home of J. Alden Nichols (1919-2014), onetime professor of European history at the University of Illinois. While at Wesleyan University in 1939 he was awarded this book by Professor James M. Osborn (1906-1976), a future Beinecke curator who had the same year joined the Grolier Club, remaining a member until his death. Called a “literary detective” in his New York Times obituary, Osborn acquired at a London book sale what turned out to be the earliest known autobiography in English, by the composer Thomas Whythorne (1528-1595).
Julius the Street Boy, or, Out West.
Horatio Alger (1832-1899). New York: The New York Book Company, 1909.
A few years ago I assisted an elderly friend in going through his books before moving to assisted living. As I took this volume from the shelf and opened the cover, my jaw dropped as I saw the name inscribed on the paste-down – my maternal grandfather’s aunt, Louise Wildhagen (1877-1948), who had lived and died over 150 miles away. My friend had no recollection of where the book had come from and gifted it to me on the spot.
[Graduation photograph, Pembroke College, Cambridge.]
Cambridge: Stearn & Sons Photographers, [June 1954].
This recent acquisition came from an estate sale in the western Massachusetts village of Lithia, at the home of a former reference librarian and graduate of Pembroke College, Cambridge, whose classmates are pictured in the photograph but who is not pictured because, as he wrote on the back, “I had sailed for U.S. shortly before ‘commencement’”. He did, however, note the location of several famous classmates, including Ted Hughes, the academic and poet Brian Cox. Also present is Sir Sidney Castle Roberts, Master of Pembroke and President of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London.