David Ruggles Prizewinner Erin Severson on Collecting the 18th Century and Odd Volumes

Erin Severson

Erin Severson

Our Bright Young Collectors series continues today with Erin Severson, one of the winners of this years David Ruggles Prize in Book Collecting for young people of color.

Where are you from / where do you live?

I was born in South San Francisco, raised in rural North Dakota (the town of Bottineau, for the 2,500 who know it!), and based in Los Angeles, which feels the most like home to me after eight years living there. Currently, thanks to my itinerant life as an academic, I am writing from West Kensington, London.

What do you study at University?

As an undergraduate at UCLA, I majored in English and minored in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. Then, I did a year at Oxford as a Mica and Ahmet Ertegun Scholar for the Humanities to further my studies of 18th century (primarily British) literature with a MSt in English 1700-1830. Now, I’ve returned to UCLA as a PhD student in the English department, entering my third year, working at the intersection of eighteenth century literary studies, the history of science in the early modern period, and book history. My dissertation will construct a history of “black humor” through an analysis of relationship between the transatlantic book trade and slave trade. The life and work of Ignatius Sancho is my current obsession.

I also work closely - as close as I possibly can, actually - with rare books, by apprenticing with antiquarian book dealers, cataloging for a private collector, and working as a student library assistant at my very favorite place on earth, the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library in the West Adams district of LA. So, I wear many book-shaped hats in addition to my doctoral work.

Please introduce us to your book collection. What areas do you collect in?

My library began with my undying love for the 18th century and my stubborn quest to see it represented in a way in which I can see myself and people more like me than the staleness, maleness, and paleness associated with it. So, I would say I collect more of a period than a topic. However, although I have acquired a mix of material that includes early printings of canonical greats, my most prized possessions are items that make me feel seen in the period that I study. Neglected, devalued bits of refuse - literal rags, thanks to the process required to make early modern paper - are what I collect. Odd volumes missing their siblings, reams of paper missing their covers, tattered and battered artifacts that show their long, harrowing histories to arrive at this moment. These are some of my favorite things. Things that shouldn't have survived and somehow did.

One man’s trash is a queer Filipinx girl’s treasure. I have always been fascinated by the tension between the durability of these books and the fragility of their value. Without perfect collation, without fine or contemporary binding, without the title page—these books go from priceless to worthless. Somehow a bit of foxing (if I can ever figure out what that is) can entirely decimate the value of a book. Even if the text block is readable. Even if all pieces are preserved but not perfectly intact. I feel like I am working against this devaluation of books as part and parcel of how I work against the devaluation of authors or subjects in my period based on gender, race, or other markers of identity. My favorite books somehow touch the lives of marginalized figures, even if we do not have access to their voices.

I collect the way I do because I know no one else will. Above all, I feel lucky to own the items I have now and to exercise the privilege of seeking out a version of history that feels recognizable and important to me. When I see something that I know is "unfit" for a library and would never make it past the discerning eyes of an acquisitions department, or those of an even more shrewd private collector, I know I must have it.

A specimen of seaweed pressed between the pages of Erin's copy of An Account of the Pelew Islands.
Erin Severson

A specimen of seaweed pressed between the pages of Erin's copy of An Account of the Pelew Islands.

Erin's mezzotint
Erin Severson

Erin's mezzotint

A selection from Erin's collection
Erin Severson

A selection from Erin's collection

How many books are in your collection?

If I had to guesstimate, I would say something like 70 titles, maybe 100 volumes...?

Hard to say what the true number is when I struggle to leave the house and not return with a new book in hand. (Ask any of my friends.) I have several tabs open right now on my computer of books I am trying to convince myself not to buy.

What was the first book you bought for your collection?

What does Mr. Darcy about love? “I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”

The first book I consciously, intentionally purchased - as a thing rare, valuable, and sacred - and more crudely, as an investment, because it cost a pretty penny - was a first edition, second impression of Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub. Even better would have been the fifth. I was attending my first rare book fair in Pasadena and made the mistake of telling myself I wouldn’t buy anything UNLESS I miraculously stumbled across a first or fifth edition copy of Tale of a Tub or an early Humphry Clinker. And stumble, I did. Now I have four different copies that were printed in the 18th century.

How about the most recent book?

Last week, I scored a second edition of Alexander Pope’s Dunciad Variorum at G. David Bookseller, Cambridge. In the process of writing this up, I ordered a copy of Mungo Park’s Travels into the Interior of Africa, second edition.

And your favorite book in your collection?

Hard to choose a favorite child, and yet it must be done.

My favorite thing I own is my only mezzotint, which hangs over my desk to spur me on and remind me why I love books so much and why I love the 18th century so much. It depicts a woman reading. I am fascinated by 18th century representations of women reading. The sitter is wearing a headwrap that evokes not so much the attire of a specific country but rather a very British orientalized appropriation of eastern culture. Her dress is Elizabethan-looking (that is, not suited to the late 18th century when this was printed) and way over the top.

Caricaturing eastern dress became a popular 18th century fashion, particularly at masquerade balls, so that seems to be the explanation for what the sitter is wearing. This mezzotint image is a cultural, political mess and I love it. It is also a mystery in that it came with minimal provenance information and I have yet to locate another copy. I purchased it as a graduation gift to myself from Sanders in Oxford where I spotted this lovely lady in the front window of their shop and instantly fell in love.

The 18th century sitter also happens to bear a striking resemblance to my 21st century girlfriend, although I never need a reminder why I love her so much.

Best bargain you’ve found?

Really, my greatest triumphs are my most hideous copies, my workhorse copy of Robinson Crusoe which shed its boards long before it came into my possession, my waterlogged copy of Anna Seward’s Memoirs of Erasmus Darwin, the rat-eaten odd volumes from full sets I will surely never own. Condition is everything to me. I just happen to lust after the very worst conditions.

How about The One that Got Away?

Every day I am chasing chasing chasing, but I’ve yet to have any striking missed encounters.

What would be the Holy Grail for your collection?

The very best thing I could own would be a copy of Ignatius Sancho’s long-lost manuscript Theory of Music. Then my dissertation would write itself and my life would have meaning. I would not hoard it however, I would hastily donate it to the Clark so it would be publicly accessible, as I plan to donate all my books one day.

However, as that text is unlikely to ever resurface, my dream item would be to have an 18th century edition of the Letters of Ignatius Sancho, who was a successful entrepreneur, family man, and wit, as well as the first black Briton to vote. He was both remarkable for his time, and yet (as my research aims to show) representative of the rising middle class in London. His works are tragically absent from the Clark Library where I work, and I would love to be able to gift them my copy one day. Owning something written by him and printed in the 18th century would make my heart grow at least thrice its current size.


Who is your favorite bookseller / bookstore?

I have a soft spot for the Oxfam on St. Giles in Oxford which is a no-frills charity shop where I have found books which mean the most to me, including the massive travel book from 1788 An Account of the Pelew Islands, which is the only quarto in my collection, containing many beautiful engravings, an 18th century map of the Philippines, and even pressed seaweed specimens from one of its previous owners.

Zhenya Dzhavgova of ZH Books is my favorite bookseller because she is a dear friend and fantastic at what she does. She specializes in early antiquarian Slavic and Eastern European books and ephemera in many different European languages.

What would you collect if you didn’t collect books?