Friday, July 24, 2015

Why aren't literature professors also book collectors?

First US Editions of V. and Ulysses
I am constantly surprised, when I speak to my colleagues who are professors of literature in departments of English, how very few of them are active collectors of books.

Certainly, many English professors are very active accumulators of books: they often have hundreds or thousands of volumes. But despite their passion for books and literature, and often even a professional interest in material textuality, literature professors are only occasionally also collectors. But who else, I always think, is in such a good position to know what sorts of books might be expected to have lasting value? And I guess I also always hope that academics will wish to take an active, personal role in preserving and transmitting our shared literary heritage into the future: of course academic libraries are already doing some of this, but libraries cannot do it all. And every used bookstore we walk into might contain a treasure that deserves to be preserved, and sometimes it will take an expert to recognize such a treasure.

My own experience as a scholar and collector suggests, however, that there may well be other benefits to collecting. One of the formative experiences of my academic life was a 1997 NEH Summer Seminar based at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where there is an outstanding collection of Anglo-Saxon and other medieval manuscripts. Even while attending the seminar, I understood that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity: I was getting a chance to see and handle medieval books that I’d probably never have a reason to ask to see. In the world of truly rare and unique books, of course, one needs a reason, a scholarly project, to justify consulting a particular book, and it is almost impossible to develop a general familiarity with a broad spectrum of things when one is always working on a specific task.

In my current writing project (and in my previous book), I’ve had occasion more than once to refer to books that I’ve come to know not because I would ever have had any reason to consult them in a library, but rather because I’ve collected them. In The Visible Text, I used the copyright page of the first edition of Thomas Pynchon’s V. as an example of a moment where the distinction between text and paratext was undermined for a literary effect. In my recent work for my next book, I have found myself writing about the exceptionally large capital S that begins the text in the American first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses. I know these books, and the physical details about them that interest me, because they sit on my own shelves, right in my living room--even on my couch, as in the picture above.
The stately, but not plump, S at the start
of Joyce's Ulysses.

If I hadn’t been a collector, I would never have had any reason to even look at these first editions, much less handle them and become familiar with them. I wouldn’t have ever been able to use them or think about them in relation to my academic work. Being a book collector has given me a far broader experience of books and their texts than my academic training or my academic pursuits alone could have done. Of course not every book I’ve collected will end up playing a role in the academic arguments I make, but that’s precisely the point: I do not know which books I will use until I use them. But I do know that I will probably not use a book I am not at least somewhat familiar with.

Being a collector for me means that ownership is important somehow: not only does owning these books give me a feeling of pleasure and enjoyment, but it gives me knowledge as well. And I guess this is why I am surprised that more literature professors are not also book collectors: because book collecting is a route to at least some sorts of knowledge as surely as is any more traditional academic pursuit.


  1. I have two young friends--one an assistant professor who did her PhD with me, one a graduate student working with a close friend of mine--who both spent some years in the rare book trade between masters' programs and doctorates. Both of them have seen hundreds of amazing books--many more than I have--and picked up all kinds of useful (and, even better, useless but fascinating) knowledge. Both do very creative kinds of book history. I wish more professors collected books--but I'd also love to see a few more humanities graduate students who have sold them.

    1. I love these examples: send these folks my way, if either of them make it to the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo. It's that useless but fascinating knowledge that is so interesting to me: because for me, some of it, at least, has gone on to become useful knowledge.