Words & Ideas

The Collector

By March 8, 2020September 18th, 2020No Comments

I began collecting books when I was about 13. I had a friend who was already doing it and and I wanted to be just like him. Whenever we came to the city we’d buy books at bookstores in or near the Port Authority Bus terminals at 42nd street (the Book Bar) and uptown at 168th street and the George Washington Bridge. I also mention this because going to a bookstore was very exciting. Unlike the dimly lit public library, paperback books were displayed with their covers showing. Racks and rows of them were a visual delight filled with discovery after discovery of subjects, authors and titles.

At first,  I mostly bought science-fiction and fantasy paperbacks published by Ballantine Books. I loved the stories but I was also attracted to the cover illustrations which reminded me of surrealist artists like Yves Tanguy and Pavel Tchelitchew whose paintings I had seen at the Museum of Modern Art. I got to know their work during that time in the late 1950’s because my father’s parents lived in a walkup railroad apartment on Second Avenue near 51st street. We’d visit them on Sunday afternoons and I’d get dropped off at the Museum to wander around for an hour or two. The cover of Reach for Tomorrow by Arthur C. Clarke  shown here, is a good example of Tanguy’s influence on the illustrator, Richard M. Powers.

By the time I graduated high school I must have had a collection of about a hundred books. However, when I was sixteen I also began reading more serious fiction by writers like Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Federico Garcia Lorca, Dylan Thomas, Nikolai Gogol and Jean-Paul Sartre. Still, I have to admit, I often bought books because I liked the covers. Four titles from New Directions Press and four from the Bantam Classics series show how seductive the artwork could be despite my complete ignorance of graphic design and printing.

Many years later I would learn  about the “New York School” and designers like Alvin Lustig who created the Lorca cover. Although I once owned most of these books, a trunk containing my entire collection disappeared during the academic year 1963-64 while I spent my junior year abroad. So, over the years, I gradually re-acquired the titles shown here (and others) at yard sales, library sales and in used book stores. Lustig did many for New Directions including the Dylan Thomas and Lorca covers.  I also have a  designer friend who has a collection of them. Clearly, the New Directions covers are a lesson in the power and possibilities of black and white, while the Bantam Classic Series used a more structured approach within which designers were free to play with type, color and artwork.

Now I realize that my collecting habit began as a child when I got a stamp album and also began discovering fossils in nearby stream beds, and rock walls.  Soon  I had a couple of hundred stamps and about a dozen fossils. I lost interest in both of them around the time my book collection became a pre-occupation.  While my book collecting habit was well established I eventually found other things to collect. One weekend, in my early twenties, I wandered into a large postcard expo near where I was living in downtown New York City. There were dozens and dozens of tables displaying thousands of different cards sorted into hundreds of categories. I got very excited and bought two cards for a dime each, taken by the humor and graphic simplicity of the images. Today, I find myself collecting books, stamps, postcards and other paper ephemera. I recently posted an image on Facebook of the collection of jewelry, coins and related items I’ve found on the streets over a period of forty-plus years. My next post will include images from these collections.