Dawn Hollis won the inaugural J.D. Forbes Book Collecting Prize in 2015 for her ‘High and Distant Places: A Travel, Mountaineering, and Exploration Collection’. The 2016 competition closes on 1 June.
What is a book collection, and how do you end up with one? In answer to the first question, it is something more than just a collection of books. In answer to the second, in my case the clue is in the wording: somewhat by accident.
I’ve spent many years simply acquiring books – a novel here, a biography there – without any thought beyond whatever it is I’m interested in reading at the time. But I think that buying what you’re interested in is exactly how a book collection can creep up on you. As a teenager I became absolutely fascinated with the so-called ‘mystery of Mallory and Irvine’ – in which two climbers disappeared while attempting to summit Everest in 1924 – and I bought a book about it. Then it turned out that there were dozens of different opinions on the mystery, and a corresponding number of different books, so I bought a few more. Then I started making a beeline to the ‘travel and adventure’ section of any bookshop I entered, and other volumes of travel and mountaineering history started to catch my eye. Then my mother started putting books about Everest and Tibet in my Christmas stocking. I think you know you’re well on the way to becoming a collector when people give you gifts related to your obvious obsession.
I was really pleased when the new J.D. Forbes Book Collecting Prize was announced in 2015. Entries required an annotated list of your collection, plus an essay about it, what it covered, and how it was formed. I had never catalogued my growing selection of travel, mountaineering, and exploration books before, and I had an absolutely fantastic time sitting on the floor by my shelves, getting reacquainted with volumes I had bought years ago, and gulping somewhat as the list kept growing and growing. So many of my books are tied up with memories of their purchase – of over-generous booksellers winking as they ’rounded down’ the price, of the town I was visiting and the people I was with when I went into a certain bookshop – and it was such a pleasure to revisit those memories as I handled each and every book in my collection.
And, of course, the Book Collecting Prize has resulted in a new addition to my collection, which will be bound up with its own memories of the whole application process, of the prize ceremony and of meeting Dr William Zachs, the brilliant Edinburgh book collector who endowed the prize.
It took me a long time to spend my prize; it seems it’s far easier impulsively to buy a pile of books than to set out with the premeditated intention of spending a certain amount of money. Initially I was torn between buying several cheaper volumes or just putting it all towards one. In the end I decided to go for the latter option, as it seemed to make sense to use the prize to get a book that would normally be far outside of my reach. After a lot of soul-searching and Abe-Books-searching I found my gem in the rough: Adam Olearius’ Voyages and Travels, published in 1662. This book is normally eye-wateringly expensive, but my copy had been ‘ill used’, according to the bookseller. If anything, this makes me like it more: some of the maps and the binding have clearly fallen apart at some point, but a previous owner also painstakingly repaired both. It ticks so many of my collecting boxes: my first seventeenth-century book, an important volume of seventeenth-century travel literature, it even provides an account of the writer climbing mountains. As a bonus, it is also a primary source for my PhD thesis: I sure will get a thrill double-checking my footnotes against my own real-life copy!
Probably the most exciting aspect of the prize, however, was getting to help choose a new addition to the University’s Special Collections. I had a different set of criteria in mind for this than I would for my own collection. I really wanted to suggest something that was unique in some way, that would be of real benefit – even if just to one researcher – in a publicly-accessible library. Of course, such material is generally pretty expensive, but once again I stumbled across the perfect find – an 1848 manuscript poem on the beauties of Kellie Law, a hill (around 250m high) in the East Neuk of Fife. Not quite a mountain, but it made up for it in local interest, and was of course unique. Somehow the manuscript had found its way over the Atlantic to the US. It felt pretty good to be part of helping to bring it home.
All in all, being part of the first competition was a great experience. I won’t say that winning wasn’t a significant bonus, but the process of entering alone was a great opportunity to think about and get to know my existing collection in a whole new way. If you love your books, and realise that you have even one or two shelves that bring together a particular theme or interest of yours, and think you’d enjoy telling people a bit about why those books matter to you – you should definitely enter. It’s well worth the try, whatever the result!
PhD Candidate, School of History