Number of Books: About 2,600
Collecting Since: 1975
First Book: Illuminations, Walter Benjamin
Best Bargain: Sailor Song, Ken Kesey
Rare Book He'd Like to Own: Turandot and Other Poems, John Ashbery
Highest Price Paid for a Book: An Unforgettable Flight, Bill & Moya Lear ($950)
Top 3 Books in Collection:
- An Unforgettable Flight, Bill & Moya Lear, Reno, Nevada: Jack Bacon & Co. 1996
- Ommateum, AR Ammons, Philadelphia: Dorrance 1955,
- Opening Day, Laura Davidson, Boston: 2007
I began collecting books in 1975 while a graduate student. I had just finished Walter Benjamin's Illuminations and recognized myself in his essay on book collecting, Unpacking My Library. I liked books nearly the way I liked girls: loved the depth of characters, relished the thrills of dialogue, liked touching and holding books, and enjoyed the aesthetics of book jackets. Benjamin's book thus became the very first in my own library.
Through three decades I read and collected books across several disciplines, mainly poetry, fiction, and history. I bought in small bookstores on the East Coast and in the UK, from online dealers like those on AbeBooks.com, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, through appointments with rare books dealers.
Among my most prized books is one of the few (approximately 35) extant copies of the poet A. R. Ammons' first book, Ommateum, published by a vanity house, Dorrance. It's a small, burnt-sienna colored volume, tightly-bound and prophetic.
Another favorite is a presentation copy of Bill and Moya Olson Lear's An Unforgettable Flight. Cloth-covered and without a jacket, it is autographed by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, President Gerald Ford, Clary Long, and Hank Beiard, the latter two test pilots who died on duty.
The book with the greatest dust jacket I've ever seen is Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold. I truly bought that book solely because of its brilliant, bas-relief cover. I was then delighted when the story's creativity mirrored the jacket.
Since I am a Francophone, I like to read French literature. In 2006, a year of intense anti-Americanism in France and of anti-French sentiment in America, the French Academy awarded its highest literary honor, the Prix Goncourt, to the American writer, Jonathan Littell. He wrote a
first novel, Les Bienveillantes, in French, an astonishing accomplishment. I have two editions of that book published so far, and will buy others as they appear.
My all-time favorite is a John Updike book. I consider it so not because of its status as a book but because it came with a unique Polaroid photo of Updike taken on a beach in Massachusetts. Hands folded behind his neck and smirking up into the camera, a rail-thin, 28-year old Updike seems to be enjoying life as much as his fabulous characters. The photo is signed on both sides and is annotated by Updike with a bubble that reads, "STOP that camera!"
Surely, the most unique books I own are the set of Penguin Designer Classics published in 2007 in limited editions of 1,000. Madame Bovary, Tender Is the Night, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Crime and Punishment, and The Idiot had new jackets designed by experts from other fields, e.g.,
Manolo Blahnik (shoes), Sir Paul Smith (fashion), Sam Taylor-Wood (video), Ron Arad (architecture), Fuel (graphic design). They all come in a perspex slip case and are exquisite.
The most recent book in my collection is a signed first edition of William Vollmann's Riding Toward Everywhere, a book about riding the rails cross-country. That's how I feel when I'm reading, riding toward everywhere and everyone. When I was a child growing up in the small city of Berlin, New Hampshire, my best friend, Claude, and I used to run down to the railroad crossing every Saturday to lay pennies on the tracks. These shiny objects, so finely done by the US Mint, were transformed into long, flat teardrops without dates and with new identities by the trains. That's a metaphor for me when I'm reading and collecting - molded, transported, transformed.