The Next Generation of Collectors
Profiles of the winners of the Collegiate Book-Collecting Championship
Three years ago, this magazine launched the Collegiate Book-Collecting Championship, a sort of Olympics for young book collectors. After years of hearing people bemoan the lack of young collectors, Fine Books decided we should try and do something about it. Then we realized that several dozen colleges were already promoting book collecting by holding contests for their students. The tradition dates back eight decades, when a donor at Swarthmore College offered a prize for the best student library. A few years later, the book collector and writer A. Edward Newton endowed the Swarthmore competition and spurred other like-minded bibliophiles to start contests at other colleges. The idea spread across the country and, in recent years, to colleges in Canada and England. Given Swarthmore’s place of honor as the starting point for book-collecting contests, it seems fitting that a Swarthmore student is one of the winners of this year’s championship.
Jacob Brunkard, a recent Swarthmore graduate, won third place this year for his collection of Black Sparrow Press books. Black Sparrow, founded by John Martin, was the most successful American avant-garde publisher. Its most popular author, Charles Bukowski, is a perennial favorite among young readers and writers. In fact, the winner of this year’s competition—Rhae Lynn Barnes, of the University of California at Berkeley—cited Bukowski as one of her favorite writers.
Her collection, ironically, is not of the poetry she admires, it is of books she dislikes: racist black-face minstrel plays. The canned advice for collectors is “collect what you love.” Barnes has turned that idea on its head—she collects what she hates in order to shed light on an unhappy period in American history that most libraries and collectors have avoided.
Our remaining prize winner, Basie Bales Gitlin, is now just a junior at Yale. His second-place entry is a collection of canvassing books, or publisher’s dummies, which door-to-door booksellers used to attract orders for forthcoming titles. It is a sophisticated subject for a young collector, but Gitlin is no stranger to accolades for his collecting. He was featured as a child collecting prodigy on C-SPAN several years ago.
I look forward to meeting these three remarkable and accomplished young collectors in Seattle this fall. And you can meet them, too, at the awards dinner hosted by the Book Club of Washington. If you sometimes despair about the future of the book, read about our winners on the following pages, and join us on October 10 to meet the next generation of collectors in person.
Rhae Lynn Barnes
University of California, Berkeley
for her collection of minstrel plays
I’m a senior now at UC Berkeley.
I was enrolled in a history class with Leon Litwak, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. The class was about race relations in the twentieth century. I got very interested in minstrelsy, and I started looking for copies of the plays about two years ago.
Most Recent Acquisition
I have already almost doubled the number of books I had when I submitted my application to the book-collecting contest. Right now I’m in the process of purchasing a minstrel book called Down on the Levee. I’m interested in black labor and in levee imagery. In the last three years, I’ve been very involved in running fundraisers to rebuild the libraries after Katrina, so I’m interested in how the levees were viewed in minstrel plays in the 1930s.
I have a large poetry collection, too. I’m the editor-in-chief of the Berkeley Poetry Review. This year will be our fortieth anniversary.
On the Appeal of Books
As a historian, or at least as someone who is aspiring to be a professional historian, they are primary sources. They are also entertaining, and they are art pieces, too.
Every single minstrel play I find is so shocking that I don’t think I can hope to find something worse. It is amazing to realize that school children performed them.
I’m always reading Charles Bukowski. I just read a book by Joy Harjo called She Had Some Horses. In history, I’m rereading Gay New York by George Chauncey.
At the awards ceremony for the UC Berkeley contest, the head of the Bancroft Library came up to me and asked, “In a couple of years, when you don’t want this anymore, can we have it?” [After I won the national championship], somebody sent out a mass e-mail about it. So many people wrote to congratulate and encourage me. I was very shocked by the response. I thought it would be “Oh, that crazy book girl.” It was a great feeling to see that so many people cared.