Book collecting is an activity that dates back to the Renaissance, in the 15th century, when the educated elite amassed collections of illuminated manuscripts to display both their wealth and knowledge. A few decades later came the advent of movable type and the printing press which greatly reduced the cost of books. Today book collecting is an activity open to anyone from the rich and famous to the average Joe on a tight budget, the only requirement is a love of books. With a little knowledge and some patience, you can assemble a handsome collection without spending vast sums of money.
However, if you want your collection to end up in a museum then you are going to need a bankroll. Take A.S.W. Rosenbach for instance. His book collection is one of the most famous in the world and can now be found in the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia. It’s debatable whether Rosenbach was a collector or a dealer first. He had a fantastic career assembling collections for the Huntington Library, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and many private clients; but he also put together a vast personal library of rare works in history, science, astronomy, philosophy, and physics. He bought and sold copies of the Gutenberg Bible several times but never kept a copy for himself because he supposedly felt it was too common. He did keep James Joyce’s manuscript of Ulysses and the earliest known letter by George Washington.
The third president of the United States was scholar, a polymath and one of the most famous book collectors of all time. He loved literature dearly, once stating “I cannot live without books.” Over his lifetime he built several library collections including one he sold to the United States government to replace the original Library of Congress that had been destroyed in the War of 1812. This collection includes the following books.
Famous for writing the James Bond novels, Ian Fleming was also a certified bibliophile. He served on the board of The Book Collector Journal and owned a small publishing house (Queen Anne Press). His collection concerned books that he felt had a great impact on western civilization, for better or worse. Many works from this collection, which is now housed in the Lilly Library at Indiana University, were featured in the 1963 London exhibition Printing and the Mind of Man.
Jerome Kern made his fortune as one of the great American composers of musical theatre writing hundreds of songs including “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” However it is not just music lovers and theater buffs who remember him fondly, Kern was also a bibliophile of the highest order. Over the better part of a decade he built up a collection of first, or early, editions by Henry Fielding, Charles Dickens, John Keats, and Lord Byron among others. Then in 1929 he made worldwide news by selling his prized collection at a New York auction for a record setting $1,729,462.50. The collection included:
Theodore Dreiser amassed a library of more than 1,900 volumes, excluding works that he wrote himself. Much of the library was first editions and signed copies of works he enjoyed, but it was also a working library. In the 1930s Dreiser wrote a large amount of non-fiction and his library was of great importance. In 1949, four years after his death, his collection was sold to the University of Pennsylvania where it resides today.
Movie star Johnny Depp is among a growing number of modern actors and celebrities who are avid book collectors, but he also has strong literary connections. Depp was a close friend of Hunter S. Thompson, staring in adaptations of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Rum Diary, contributing a forward to Gonzo: Photographs by Hunter S. Thompson and narrating a documentary about the author. He has also chosen a large number of literary roles including playing a rare book dealer in The Ninth Gate.
Depp enjoys the Beat Generation authors and owns a number of letters and manuscripts by Jack Kerouac as well as the author’s typewriter. Other authors rumored to feature heavily in his collection include Dylan Thomas and Arthur Rimbaud.