February 2009 | Nicholas Basbanes

A Romp in the Vault

COLUMBIA, SC--Forgive me, please, for using a dateline, but I'm an old newspaperman, and since I'm in the field, as it were, at the South Carolina Book Festival, using one in this instance seems perfectly appropriate.

matthew_bruccoli.jpg This posting will be fairly brief, because it's not quite noon on Saturday morning, and I have a presentation to make in a couple hours, offering a tribute to the late Matthew J. Bruccoli, who died last year at 76. I wrote about Matt on a number of occasions--first in Fine Books & Collections, later as a featured profile in my 2005 book, "Every Book Its Reader" (p. 193-208). Matt was a lot of things--scholar, writer, teacher, editor, publisher, consummate collector of F. Scott Fitzgerald and other twentieth-century authors--but most of all, he was, in his own words, "a bookman." (Charles McGrath once described him in the New York Times as the "senior packrat of American letters.") In the course of our many conversations, Matt and I became good friends, so I was more than happy to accept an invitation from the good people here in South Carolina to talk about him at a festival he helped establish thirteen years ago.

It was a long day getting here yesterday--I won't grouse about the ineptitude of a certain airline, nobody cares about how much time I spent cooling my heels in Philly because of a phantom "maintenance issue" (read not enough passengers on the scheduled flight to justify a timely takeoff)--delays happen to all of us. The short of it all is that I got here just as a reception was beginning in the Thomas Cooper Library at the University of South Carolina, and after dropping my bags off in the hotel, went straight there for a quick Dewars and then, surprise of surprises, an unexpected trip into the rare books vault with Patrick Scott, the director of special collections.

Boy, how having an opportunity to see a dazzling variety of exquisite books can improve your attitude in a hurry. I had seen a number of these magnificent books on earlier trips, but you never get tired of handling a Nuremberg Chronicle, the Bleau Atlas, De Bry's "Greater Voyages," a first issue of "Paradise Lost," a 1483 incunable printed in Nuremberg by Anton Koberger, fabulous editions of Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Burns, John James Audubon, Charles Darwin--I could go on and on, and maybe, at a later date, I will.

The point here is to salute this great library, established in 1801, and a major force in collecting from the beginning of its existence. (Who knew that the first free-standing library building at an American college was built here, not in Harvard Yard or in New Haven, Conn.? I sure didn't.) What is especially impressive is that the library has been collecting very important books as they have been issued--the Audubon, for instance--and that unlike so many other Southern institutional collections, survived, miraculously, the devastation of the Civil War.

Suffice it to say that I had a grand time last night in the vault. Many thanks to Patrick Scott, and also to Col. Wayne Corbett, USAF (Ret), who arranged for the surprise bibliophilic detour. Matt Bruccoli would have been very pleased indeed.