Thursday, January 12, 2023

Susan Halas Interview with Kurt Zimmerman: Dorothy Sloan and More

 Susan Halas, book dealer and writer, contacted me to do an interview for Rare Book Monthly, the online newsletter found on  It came out in December.  I thought I'd share it on my blog for those who didn't see it.  

Happy New Year!  I've already got a couple new essays in the works so stay tuned.

Kurt Zimmerman, book blogger, shares memories of Dorothy Sloan

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Extreme Book Collecting


Sir Thomas Phillipps' idea of a family photo

Extremism is trending nowadays -- weather, politics, sports, food portions.  Even travel, an area with a historically wide latitude for adventure, is trending extreme.  At least it appears so on those ubiquitous, addictive YouTube videos where an armchair traveler may lose themselves for hours.  I’m readying for an actual trip to Colorado, real mountains, breath-taking vistas, cascading waters, and a modest bit of hiking and jeeping.  But do I want to hang precariously over a plunging precipice, my life attached to a thin cable as I dangle in the air like a circus performer, my well-paid guide, conditioned as an Olympian, encouraging me, his (or her) can-do attitude quickly wearing thin like my cheap pair of hiking boots?  Do I need this kind of adrenaline rush / confidence boost?  You can guess the answer.   For I’m a book collector and the betting odds find me seated at a craft brewery simply enjoying the mountain air, thumbing through an old-school travel guide, and admittedly googling to see if there are any bookstores close by.
            Yet is book collecting really a staid and pleasant past-time, intellectually rewarding, but free of extremes compared to the whirl of the world we live in today?  I have a one-word answer to the uninitiated – bibliomania.  Physical demise may not be at stake, but in any other form book collecting ranks high on the extremism scale.
            Take my own case, for example.  I realize self-analysis is dangerous waters but let’s wade in for a moment.  I’ve been told  by family and friends over the years that perhaps my book collecting has reached extreme levels at times.  I read this as positive feedback, reflecting many years of effort and yes, obsessiveness (let’s call it focus), in creating a collection that brings pride, joy, and an ever-elevating quest for storage space.  I’ve surrounded myself with bibliophilic friends with the same traits, thus confirming it as the norm more than an extreme.  But let me confess a few things.  I admit in retrospect that a number of my escapades could be construed as somewhat extreme.   There was the time I unexpectedly acquired fifty boxes of material at a book sale and I was, honestly, afraid to come home.  This resulted in calling my parents and asking if I could stash the boxes temporarily at their house until I could muster some sort of excuse to my wife.  I haven’t lived that one down.
            But any extremism on my part as a collector is quite modest on the larger scale.  To bolster this statement, let me provide some examples.
            Two English bibliophiles set a bar that has been providing cover for the rest of us for almost two centuries.  Richard Heber (1773-1833) developed an inordinate taste for book collecting during his undergraduate years at Oxford, much to the dissatisfaction of his wealthy father who wished him to concentrate on more academic concerns.  No matter, the bug had bitten and there was no cure.  He inherited substantial money and land holdings upon the death of his father in 1804.  Fuel to the fire.  Heber then went on a rare book acquisition spree until his death that remains almost unmatched in the annals of the venerable avocation.  Heber was not just an accumulator, but a highly skilled collector, and the quality and quantity of his library was astounding.  Heber, one of the founders of the Roxburghe Club, an exclusive English book collecting group, was a friend of Thomas Dibdin and inspired Dibdin’s famous work Bibliomania first published in 1809.  Heber is remembered for his remark, "No gentleman can be without three copies of a book, one for show, one for use, and one for borrowers."   Upon Heber’s death, he left eight houses in England and on the Continent overflowing with books.  The auction of his collection took 216 days, flooding the rare book market, and providing opportunities for other notable bibliophiles to enhance their own libraries.
            Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872) was one of those bibliophiles.  His bibliophilic flame burned even brighter than Heber’s, and he acquired books and manuscripts at a pace unmatched by contemporaries, buying in bulk from dealers and bidding aggressively at auctions, seemingly always in debt to the booksellers as he dissipated his substantial wealth.  His early goal was to own a copy of every book in the world.  He did not achieve that, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.  His early manuscript holdings, often on vellum, numbered approximately 60,000 volumes, many being rare and important.  Despite his irascible nature and single-minded focus, it must be admitted he saved unique items from possible destruction.  His long-suffering wife and daughters were literally squeezed tighter and tighter into their home as acquisitions poured in.  Sir Frederic Madden, keeper of manuscripts for the British Library, wrote of a visit, “The house looks more miserable and dilapidated every time I visit it, and there is not a room now that is not crowded with large boxes full of manuscripts. The state of things is really inconceivable. Lady P is absent, and were I in her place, I would never return to so wretched an abode. . . Every room is filled with heaps of papers, manuscripts, books, charters, packages & other things, lying in heaps under your feet, piled upon tables, beds, chairs, ladders etc. and in every room, piles of huge boxes, up to the ceiling, containing the more valuable volumes! It is quite sickening. . . The windows of the house are never opened, and the close confined air & smell of the paper & manuscripts is almost unbearable.”
            Phillipps desired to convey his collection to the English nation, but negotiations broke down with the cantankerous bibliophile.  After Phillipps’ death, it took over 100 years to disperse the collection via private sales, auctions, and dealers.
            These two classic biblio-extremists had the advantage of wealth to fund their book collecting.  A modern-day example of extreme book collecting shows what can be accomplished when a single-minded bibliophile of modest means risks economic annihilation in the pursuit of his subject.  Collector Roger Wendlick gives a first-hand account of his passion in Shotgun on My Chest: Memoirs of a Lewis and Clark Book Collector (2009).  Wendlick’s Horatio Alger story of collecting Lewis & Clark material over a quarter of a century began in 1980.  It is the best memoir I’ve encountered of a book collector immersed in the world of rare books in the 1980s and 1990s with much detail about the book trade, booksellers, and fellow collectors.  
            Wendlick writes, quoting Lewis & Clark scholar, James Ronda, “Books change lives.”  For Wendlick this certainly was the case.  With only a high school education, construction foreman job, and a growing enthusiasm, he began collecting Lewis & Clark memorabilia related to the 1905 Portland World’s Fair.  This eventually evolved into the relentless pursuit of rare books related to Lewis & Clark, guided by early mentors and booksellers, George Tweney and Preston McMann.  With a goal to form the best Lewis & Clark collection in private hands, Wendlick juggled as many as eleven credit cards and multiple home refinances in a feat of precarious financing worthy of a Wall Street gambler, buying rarities where he found them with the particular help of dealers William Reese and Michael Ginsburg.  After a decade-long binge, some luck, and growing knowledge, he was leveraged to the absolute hilt but had accomplished his goal.  Serendipitously, Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon bought the collection for $750,000, saving him from bankruptcy.
            These examples of extreme collecting certainly caused stress at times for the participants and played havoc with loved ones and friends, but in the end their efforts nourished scholarship and preservation. 
            Yet let us finish with a cautionary tale.  For extremism in any form – even bibliophilic -- can foster chaos and conjure the shaded side of human nature.
            Stephen Blumberg, the most notorious book thief in U.S. history, stole approximately 23,600 books from over 268 universities and institutions during a nearly two-decade spree during the 1970s-80s.  Many were rare books and the estimated value of the items exceeded five million dollars.  He was eventually caught, convicted, and sentenced to prison.  (Nicholas Basbanes profiled Blumberg in-depth in A Gentle Madness.)  Blumberg had the skills of a cat burglar and used all sorts of deceptive schemes to access the rare book libraries.  But a primary reason he eluded capture for so long was that he collected these books with no intention of selling them.  In his fractured mind, he stole to preserve the books from perceived neglect and gather them for his personal library.  He even removed bookplates representing the various pilfered institutions and saved them in an album to memorialize his twisted conquests.  Blumberg stands out as the sordid example of biblio-extremism taking a nefarious turn.
This writing has become a catharsis for me.  I’m feeling better already.  I’ve no urge to join the dark side of the Force, my wife still finds me palatable, there is food in the pantry and a roof overhead, and book space is getting tight but that is a relatively minor infraction.  My biblio-extremism is well in check. Perhaps before we leave on our trip to Colorado, Nicole and I should go out for a fine send-off meal.  But it is a passing thought -- I order instead a good book that just appeared in one of my want matches.  I’d been looking for a copy for a long time.

This essay recently appeared in my new column "Kurt's Biblio Wanderings" in the latest issue of the Fellowship of American Bibliophilic Societies [FABS] Journal, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Fall 2022. There are many other biblio essays in the journal that are well-worth perusing.   Here is a link:  FABS Journal. Fall 2022

I also recommend signing up for the FABS e-newsletter to keep up with latest events and happenings.  The link for a free subscription is here:  FABS E-Newsletter Sign-Up

Monday, October 24, 2022

American Book Collecting Blog Anniversary: 2011-2022 and Still Bookin’


My American Book Collecting blog celebrates its eleventh anniversary on October 24.  I almost missed it, but unlike a wedding anniversary, there would have been no harm, no foul.  However, I just received two emails only a day apart that referenced my August 23, 2014 post on American literature collector extraordinaire Stephen H. Wakeman (1859-1924).  This was certainly unusual, but also reminded me just how long I’ve been serving up essays to those who enjoy such a meal.  I began my blog on October 24, 2011 with a welcoming post that spelled out my plans:

This blog is dedicated to the history of American book collecting.  Private book collectors will be a primary focus.  However, there are many other kinds of book hunters who will receive attention such as dealers, rare book librarians, bibliographers, writers, and auctioneers.

My main interest is in the biographical side of book collecting.  The bookplate motto of famous collector A. Edward Newton exemplifies the spirit of it, "Sir, the biographical part of literature is what I love most."   Stories of association copies, letters, manuscripts, and photographs are going to be added in abundance.  Images will amplify the stories.  This is a forum serious in nature but not blogged down in detailed collations, bibliographic minutia, or dry lists.  All material is from my own collection unless otherwise noted.  Please read, comment, and share.   Amor librorum nos unit!

I’m pleased that I’ve stayed mostly on point with my original intentions.  There has been ebb and flow with the number posts over the years (now at 90 with this one), as I set no firm goal per annum.  But I decided early on to make most of them meaty—essays that could stand alone, not just tidbits or tantalizing appetizers one sees with many blogs.  This decision played out well when several of them formed the backbone of my first book Rare Book Hunting: Essays and Escapades (2021).  It is doubtful without my blog writing that my tome would have come to fruition.
            In terms of attendance, I must say I have been surprised at the reach of the readership.  Spreading the gospel of book collecting has also been a goal of mine.  So, looking at the numbers, not as an author, but as a proselytizer, I see as of today there have been 475,247 views of my eighty-nine previous posts.   My most read essay according to the blogger analytics is “Peter B. Howard: Serendipitous Bookman” (Nov. 29, 2011) with 9,381 views.  Many other posts have surpassed 5,000 views and counting.  These exact figures are not as important as the realization that a substantial number of readers are interested in the history and adventure of rare book collecting / hunting.   This is exciting and motivates me to keep writing; a virtual tip jar of sorts.
            My posts have ignited hundreds of interactions over eleven years, typically via email, on all sorts of bookish subjects.  Usually it is an inquiry, comment, or amplification related to what I’ve written.   The expansion of my circle of books friends has been wonderous and gratifying.  And as icing on the proverbial cake, it sometimes leads to new acquisitions!  I recall one memorable occasion when a descendant of Vincent Starrett, who had read my post about her illustrious ancestor, sold me a number of Starrett’s books inscribed to his brother, most notably the famous Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Unique Hamlet (1920).
            This brings me back to those latest emails about my post on famed collector Stephen Wakeman.  A dealer had acquired a couple of nice literary gems with Wakeman’s bookplate.  He discovered my essay doing research and had further questions.  The very next day, I received an email from a collector, hitherto unknown to me, saying he had just acquired books from Wakeman’s library and asking a different set of questions!  I was bemused and replied he must have just purchased said books from a certain dealer.  The answer was a surprised affirmative, and all three of us—writer, dealer, and collector—got a good biblio-chuckle over the whole thing.
            I anticipate with relish what future bookish happenings await me.   And I have some essays brewing to get us through the winter.
            Thanks to all who have read and supported my blog over the years.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

A Portrait of Thomas F. Staley (1935-2022)

Thomas F. Staley, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center

Lean, hesitant Kurt Zimmerman came from the hallway that led to director Thomas F. Staley’s office. His bright white shorts and flip flops matched uneasily with a buttoned, brilliant blue shirt; for he was young, only twenty-two.
            “Hello. Come in, Kurt,” Staley summoned, springing forth from his chair. He robustly rounded his desk, dapper in appearance, fully outfitted with jacket and tie, hand extended for a firm shake.  He projected larger in appearance than actual size.
            “How are you?  How do you enjoy being at the Ransom Center?” he said quickly, for he always spoke quickly, as I was to learn.
            “I like it a lot.  I’m volunteering with Frank Yezer, and I just made some preservation boxes for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s spiritualism albums. . . “
            “Yes, Doyle, interesting.  Lot more to him than Sherlock Holmes.  So, you like working with Frank Yezer?  He has good things to say about you. Recommended you for this internship.  I reviewed your application.  Do you know the idea behind the internship?”
            “I haven’t . . . “
            He patted me on the back and motioned for me to be seated.  I almost lost a flip flop in my haste to settle.  He resumed his director position behind the desk.  Most of his office was devoted to his collection of James Joyce, one wall of glass front bookcases housing rarities and another wall of shelves overflowing with virtually every secondary item ever written on Joyce and his contemporaries.  I was intrigued.
            He asked, “The Lilly Library – have you heard of the Lilly Library? – at Indiana University, David Randall was the original director – he established in the early 1960s a one-year paid internship to foster and train rare book people—librarians, archivists, bibliographers, even rare book trade members.  The Ransom Center internship will be two years.  Five candidates will be selected for this first group.  Do you have a particular interest or focus?”
            “I’ve always liked books, Dr. Staley. I just graduated with my English degree, not sure which way I want to go.  Professor Gribben brought our American Literature class to the Ransom Center last year and showed us some original Poe letters and Twain books . . .”
            He thought, that shirt of his is really quite blue, like the cover of a first edition of Ulysses.  I need more substance to make a final decision, leaning no, lots of applicants, and my board meeting with the executive staff is in an hour, review some notes,  what am I supposed to pick up after work, call the wife, and this unread bookseller’s catalogue, should have looked through that before having Kurt in, I really need to look through that when I’m done with him, maybe Joyce’s Et Tu, Healy!.  But don’t be ridiculous.  No known copies.  But.
            “Frank tells me you have the makings of a collector,” he said after a brief silence.
            “I do like the idea of collecting books.  However, I’m broke.” I laughed, a bit too hard.
            “So was I when I started,” he replied with a smile, “Let me show you some things.”
            And before I could rise, he had darted to his wall of glass front bookcases. 
            I did not have to feign interest.  The aura of collecting pulled me then as it pulls me still.
            “Hold this,” he said enthusiastically, gently placing a tome in my hands.  “The first Spanish edition of Joyce’s Ulysses.  I found this quite early on.”  Then began the deluge – book after book related to Joyce—inscribed items, thin pamphlets, the weighty quarto of the thick first edition of Ulysses, one of 150 copies on verge d’arches paper with a provenance I can’t remember now.  I barely could stay above water but I did, his words coming as fast as his books.  I asked lots of basic questions, and he took time to answer them.  It was my first close encounter with a passionate book collector.  There have been many such encounters since but none so important.
            He thought, so Kurt’s got the makings of a collector, very, very good, and he’s a talker, hmm, not sure on that, and I'm going to be late for my meeting -- and I still haven’t checked the bookseller catalogue yet -- but he’s different from the others, potential here, and the answer then must be yes, yes, yes.  But not now, formalities must be observed.  And I must pee.
            “Kurt, it’s been a pleasure to meet you.  I’m late for a meeting, and I really have to go.  We will get back with you quickly on the internship decision.  And perhaps I can show you some more Joyce if you are interested.”
            “Thank you, Dr. Staley.  Thanks for considering me.  It’s been an experience seeing your books.  And I am interested.”  We shook hands and I retreated from his book-lined command post, noticing a tennis racket at the ready by the door.
            “One more thing, Mr. Zimmerman,” he said, and I halted, “If you are selected for the internship you will need to upgrade your beach casual look.” 
            I stammered a reply and made haste down the hallway and out of his sight.  Optimistic within, maintaining as much dignity as possible without.  I was soon to find the violet never shrank.
Written as a memorial tribute to Dr. Thomas F. Staley (1935-2022), noted authority on Joyce and director of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas—Austin from 1988-2013.  He took a chance on me that changed the trajectory of my life.  Grateful is an understatement.  Staley’s myriad accomplishments of his distinguished career are described in the links below.

Must have been my go-to outfit. 
 KZ with bookseller Dorothy Sloan, ca. 1990

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Clubbing with the Book Fellows

The Book Fellows Bookplate

I haven’t done this much clubbing since college.  But that is a far different story involving an energetic redhead, the thumping bass of dance music, and my free-form dancing skills that generated much laughter.  Thankfully, no videos exist.  But I digress.  My recent excursion into the history of the Quarto Club of the 1920s-30s involved no such risk of injury or embarrassment.  It was a pleasurable way to resurrect a nearly forgotten group of dedicated bibliophiles.  But just as in those memorable college days, one clubbing experience was rarely enough and I was left wanting more.  I pushed back further in time in my research, still New York City, but now the early 1880s.  I recalled a book first spotted online years earlier, its importance not realized at the time. And thank the book gods it was still available! 
            I have on my desk now Frederick Locker’s London Lyrics (NY: 1883) the first publication of The Book Fellows’ Club (est. 1881), a tiny but influential wellspring that served as the genesis of the Grolier Club of New York, founded in 1884.  Their club consisted of but three official members: the founder, Valentin[e] Blacque, and two biblio-friends William Loring Andrews and Alphonse Duprat.  Their history is fragmentary and scattered, but not lost.  They left us two imprints and a story. 

Thursday, June 23, 2022

The Quarto Club: “A Few Harmless Bibliomaniacs”

Certainly, cigars and pipes after.
 But first a meal of better fare, then adjourn to the private library.  Oh yes, and drinks, pick your fashion.  But overwhelmingly books, a few brought for show, but the focus on talk—lively talk – nothing perfunctory or mundane, for these bibliophiles are most comfortable in the details, the aura of the book itself bringing whatever one’s pleasure.  It is New York City, ca. 1926, and outside the world is roaring but within it is timeless, the same for the first bookmen long ago and the same now when I gather with my fellow bibliophiles.   Today we admit all races, genders, and creeds, but the fundamentals unite us.
            This is a gathering of the Quarto Club, established in New York City by a small group of  bibliophiles headed by lawyer Mark G. Holstein (1873-1952) who serves as president.  You may recall meeting him recently in my essay “Three Ardent Bibliophiles and the Greatest Book in the World.”   He owned the copy now in my library of The Greatest Book in the World (1925), inscribed to him by the author A. Edward Newton, with a carbon of his cheeky reply to Newton tipped in (Newton had humorously disparaged lawyers.)
            A biographical note on Holstein in The Colophon: A Book Collector’s Quarterly begins, “Mark Holstein is president of the Quarto Club.”  The club’s name is vaguely familiar to me.  I research, and although I discover little secondary information about the club, I find three published volumes of papers (1927-1930) originally read by members at monthly club meetings.  The club’s effort to preserve them in book form saved the Quarto Club from almost certain historical oblivion.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Three Ardent Bibliophiles and The Greatest Book in the World

I am re-reading A. Edward Newton’s The Greatest Book in the World and Other Papers (1925) and the ghosts of bookmen past envelop me.  Not only from the text of Newton’s biblio-essays, but also from the copy itself—held gently, read closely, and treasured by three ardent bibliophiles, each with their bookplate on the front free endpaper and their scattered jottings crowding the rear pastedown.  I see in the morning light the mild soiling on the tan boards from their hands and fingers – bookish fingerprints.  The front hinge is cracked but sturdy.  Newton has added a humorous inscription to the first owner.  A carbon letter of the owner’s reply to Newton is attached to the front free endpaper by a dainty paperclip.  Tis’ a well-loved copy – a copy that affected me emotionally when I catalogued it, surprising me in that respect for I have many association copies and this would not rank among the greats in an analytical sense.  But then a yearning to tell the book’s story.  So let us begin.