Bright Young Collectors: Samuel V. Lemley

Our Bright Young Collectors series continues today with Samuel V. Lemley of Charlottesville, Virginia, winner of the 2018 National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest:


Lemley 2.pngWhere are you from / where do you live?


I grew up in Northern California but currently live in Charlottesville, where I am a PhD candidate in English at the University of Virginia. 
 
What did you study as an undergraduate?

I studied English literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (where I worked as an awed and eager assistant in the Rare Book Collection); earned a masters degree in library science at the Palmer School in New York City; and now study, teach, and write about early modern English literature, seventeenth-century antiquarianism, bibliography, and Renaissance science, among other things. 

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

I’ve figured the collection as a bibliographic genealogy, or ‘biblio-genealogy’: it tells the story of my Sicilian ancestry and heritage in the form of books printed in Sicily during the years for which genealogical records of my ancestors survive. The chronological limits of my collection (1704 to 1893) reflect this: Gabriele Militello, my earliest documented ancestor, was born in Bivona in 1704; my great-grandfather, Pietro Marchese, an emigrant to the United States in the aftermath of World War I, was born in Pollina in 1893. These are the genetic bookends of my Sicilian family tree and the figurative bookends of the collection.

My collection is also cast as a supplement to a genealogical history compiled and written over several decades by my grandfather, Vincent J. Militello, and finished last year. His research and mind guide my acquisitive habit and inspire the collection’s form. I am trying to acquire one item (book, manuscript, or pamphlet) for each of my documented Sicilian ancestors by direct lineal descent, printed or made in Sicily during the decade of their birth. 

How many books are in your collection?

The unusual criteria I use in selecting books and the relative scarcity of Sicilian imprints mean that it’s slow growing. Somehow, though, I’ve managed to assemble about fifty items, various in genre and format (manuscripts, pamphlets, ephemera, and books) over the last few years. 

What was the first book you bought for your collection?

A vellum-bound and fittingly flyspecked treatise on the plague, Relazione istorica della peste (Palermo, 1743). I found it at the ‘shadow fair’ in New York City, I think in 2014. 
 
How about the most recent book?

I just bought a preternaturally unspoiled copy of an important nineteenth-century bibliography of Siciliana, Alessio Narbone’s Bibliografia Sicola Sistematica (Palermo, 1850-55). The book is uncut in pale yellow paper wrappers, and some of its volumes are tied together with what appears to be nineteenth-century twine. Evidently it was never read. It’s a useful book (it lists thousands of texts printed in Sicily or on Sicilian subjects, so I’d have cause to cite it), but I probably won’t use it--a digital facsimile online suits and lets me keep my copy safe and unsullied on its shelf.  

And your favorite book in your collection?

It changes. Right now, I’m enamored of one book that describes the path of a large comet that appeared above Europe in July, 1819. It’s by Sicilian astronomer Niccoló Cacciatore, who is famed for encrypting his name in the stars: in an 1814 star catalog, Cacciatore assigned the vaguely Slavic-sounding names Sualocin and Rotanev to Alpha and Beta Delphini, two binary stars in the Delphinus constellation. It took astronomers nearly forty-five years to decipher Cacciatore’s onomastic conceit: Cacciatore’s name, Latinized to ‘Nicolaus Venator’ and reversed, yields Sualocin Rotanev. I like the book for its author’s tongue-in-cheek professionalism, but also because it illustrates the importance of Palermo’s Royal Observatory in nineteenth-century astronomy--it was there, for example, that Giuseppe Piazzi discovered the dwarf planet Ceres in 1802. 
 
Best bargain you’ve found?

For its age and rarity, my first Sicilian book (Relazione istorica della peste, Palermo, 1743) was enticingly priced--somewhere well below $100, if I remember correctly. That book convinced me that collecting Sicilian imprints could be done affordably. But my most exciting purchase came during a recent trip to Palermo’s mercato delle pulci--a row of garage-like shopfronts just north of the city’s Norman palace. Amidst an assortment of knickknacks and kitsch, I found an unbound sheaf of four folded sheets bearing a manuscript homily in Italian. After glancing through it and discovering that it was a Christmas sermon written by a Sicilian priest sometime in the nineteenth century (I think circa 1830), I offered the shop’s owner a wadded ten Euro note and left to decipher the manuscript’s contents over dinner in a nearby trattoria. Hauntingly, the text of the sermon is apparently unrecorded elsewhere--it carries a scribal record of a voice that echoes still across two centuries or more. Beyond its intrinsic value and interest, though, the manuscript carries personal associations that will remain forever bound in with my collection: that same morning I had met with cousins at their home in the northern Sicilian countryside and visited the room in which my great-grandfather had died. Near the end of his life, he returned to his hometown, leaving family and America behind to die on his mother’s land, south of Cefalù. All that for 10 Euros. 

How about The One that Got Away?

I’ve somehow avoided that heartbreak.

What would be the Holy Grail for your collection?

Any illustrated book from the press of eighteenth-century Palermitan printer Angelo Felicella, or a copy of Giuseppe Piazzi’s pioneering star catalog, the Praecipuarum stellarum inerrantium (Palermo, 1803). 

Who is your favorite bookseller / bookstore?

The Bookery in Placerville, California was the bookstore of my childhood and so tenants my mind as a kind of Platonic ideal for ‘Bookstore.’ Thinking of it now conjures its shelves, scents, and staff, including a graying dog I’d sit beside while browsing for Redwall books, circa 1999. I revisit it whenever I’m back home in a sort of bookish pilgrimage. More recently, my favorite sellers work in the rarefied world of antiquarian books. W.P. Watson’s catalogs teem with remarkable things and bristle with Rick Watson’s incomparable erudition and expertise. I’ve been privileged to work for Watson at ABAA and ILAB fairs in New York, California, and London--I feel I’ve learned from the best. I also admire A.N. Devers, owner of The Second Shelf in London, from afar. She’s doing brilliant things to open up the often tweedy and very male world of antiquarian books to women sellers and collectors and seems to be the best kind of badass. I hope to meet her someday.

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

Plants. 

[Image credit: Dan Addison]


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