Not many university students can claim to be among the best young antiquarian book collectors in the country. True, not many have ever aspired to.
But in an Internet age where computers and video games clamor for the attention of young people, four young collectors prove that the love of books lives on. They showcased their prize finds last month at an event sponsored by the Ticknor Society, a Boston book-lovers group. Each displayed the intellect, intensity, and endearing obsessiveness that the hobby seems to inspire.
Bill Miglore, who graduated from Amherst College last spring, held up a dusty 1940 copy of Scholastic magazine. But this copy contains Truman Capote's first-ever published work: a few lines about what he liked girls to wear on dates. The work had gone undiscovered for so long that Capote specialists stopped looking for it 20 years ago.
Fellow panelist Anne Harley, who records, performs, teaches, and researches Russian Gypsy and chamber music from the 1780s to 1850s, collects books of, well, Russian Gypsy and chamber music from the 1780s to 1850s. Her collection illuminating the "cultural milieu" of the music won her Boston University's book-collecting prize last spring.
Ms. Harley reads aloud an excerpt that "made her eyes light up" the first time she saw it, inviting the audience to experience the moment the words captured.
Exact criteria for a winning collection are hard to pin down. Bibliophiles insist that spending a lot of money is neither a requisite nor a guarantor of quality. They appreciate thoughtful, well-rounded collections that demonstrate a collector's genuine interest, passion, and effort. A few special finds don't hurt.
"A good collection tries to understand a subject through history," says Scott Brown, editor of Fine Books and Collections Magazine. Last summer, the magazine held the first nationwide college-level book-collecting competition, inviting three-dozen students who had won their school contests to submit essays and annotated lists. Mr. Miglore placed second.
The collection must also be fairly comprehensive, Mr. Brown says. A set of 200 books written about "Finnegans Wake," for example, is not very good if there are 2,000 such books out there.
The pursuit takes time, and know-how. Some of the collectors' prize finds once lay unknown in small bookstores around the world.
Or, more commonly these days, they were catalogued on the Internet – perhaps miscatalogued.
Today, almost anyone can advertise any book online, oblivious to the precise definitions of "good" versus "fair" condition that bibliophiles have established. Dabblers experiment on eBay; part-timers might create their own websites.
Unchecked cataloguing can irritate professionals whose "very good" online order arrives with a dented cover. But it can also put priceless finds – posted online by unknowing amateurs – into the hands of skillful collectors who know what to look for.
Miglore snatched up the long-lost Capote paragraph by running a variety of specialized online searches for the right Scholastic magazine, which someone had decided to sell on Abebooks.com, a leading online marketplace.
"It is a time-consuming and devoted process," Harley says by phone prior to the panel. Her hunt for books is even more exhausting: She travels to Russia at least once a year and wades through an aggravating bureaucracy. Harley has undergone interviews just to look at a book catalog; she's waited days to ask permission to photocopy, only to be denied. A week's work might yield just eight lines of music.
Finding valuable books on a student budget increases the challenge – and heightens the thrill. Miglore found T.S. Eliot's "The Cocktail Party" inscribed by the author to his cousin Martha Eliot in a Boston bookstore – for $4. Fellow panelists gasp with empathetic delight at the story.
Harley and panelist Michael Hayes Sanchez, whose French avant-garde book collection won first prize at Harvard University, express their appreciation for the less expensive overseas market.
And how's this for cheap deals, says Mark Schneider, whose collection of autographed books written by or about 20th-century US presidents won Yale University's sophomore prize: Jimmy Carter has written and signed so many books that they can cost less than unsigned editions.
To fill out his collection in a cost-effective way, Mr. Schneider bought unsigned books and mailed them to three living presidents, requesting their autographs. (All three obliged.) And when he couldn't find any book written by or about Warren Harding, he wrote one himself. He couldn't get the late president's autograph, but the book did win the accolade of "top 10 high school plays in the nation" from the National Foundation for the Advancement in the Arts.
The panelists' audience – a few dozen enthusiasts who seem to have been in the game longer than their lecturers have – looked excited to see the next generation of hobbyists.
Part of the fun of book collecting is enjoying the fellowship of bibliophiles who "understand your lunacy," says Sidney Berger of the Ticknor Society.