The National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest is sponsored by the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America (ABAA), the Fellowship of American Bibliophilic Societies (FABS), the Grolier Club, and the Center for the Book and the Rare Books and Special Collections Division (the Library of Congress), with major support from the Jay I. Kislak Foundation.  

 

The 2018 winners are:

First Prize: Samuel Vincent Lemley, University of Virginia: Biblioteca Genealogica: Sicilian Printing, 1704-1893

Second Prize: Paul T. Schwennesen, University of Kansas: Borderlands: A Manifesto on Overlap

Third Prize: Hanaa J. Masalmeh, Harvard University: Far From the Eyes, Far From the Heart: My Life as a Syrian-American Muslim

Essay. Ena Selimovic, Washington University in St. Louis: Ja, Ben, I, Je: A Book Collection in Translation

 

We asked each some questions about their respective collections and their path to becoming a book collector.

 

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First prize-winner Samuel Vincent Lemley of the University of Virginia collects items printed in Sicily between 1704 and 1893.

Read his bibliography and essay here: Biblioteca Genealogica: Sicilian Printing, 1704-1893.

 

Q: Could you give us a brief description of your collection?

Samuel Vincent Lemley: My collection is an experiment in what might be called 'biblio-genealogy’: it tells the story of my Sicilian ancestry 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. As I see it, these are the genetic bookends of my Sicilian family tree and the figurative bookends of this collection. So far I’ve gathered 30 or so items, diverse in form and genre — manuscripts, pamphlets, books, and printed ephemera.

 

Q: What first interested you in Sicilian Printing?

SVL: My grandfather has researched our family’s genealogy for decades. When I visit his home in California, he often shares his most recent discoveries, and I’m always amazed by the meticulous way in which he has organized and made sense of what is now a vast archive of material (birth records, baptismal records, marriage records, etc.). It’s really his work, influence, and personality that prompted my collection, and I’ve envisioned it as a kind of artifactual supplement to the history he’s written. With that said, the collectors’ impulse has taken over: I’m swiftly becoming a connoisseur of Sicilian paper, typography, and bindings. 

 

Q: What currently has pride of place in the collection?

SVL: Surprisingly it's not a book, but a manuscript of a Christmas sermon I found in a small antiques market in Palermo (known there, just as in the States, as a 'mercato delle pulci'—a flea market). The text of the sermon, evidently drafted by an unknown priest sometime in mid-nineteenth century, is unrecorded elsewhere, which makes it all the more haunting. There’s something about the silent presence of this homiletic voice across centuries that captures my collection’s aim: to ventriloquize the past and establish an artifactual link with my ancestral culture. 

 

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Second Prize-winner Paul T. Schwennesen, of the University of Kansas, collects items related the American SouthWest.

Read his bibliography and essay here: Borderlands: A Manifesto on Overlap.

 

Q: Would you tell us about your personal book collection?

Paul T. Schwennesen: The collection is of books that address the complex strands running through borderlands culture: the historical, environmental, social, poetic, and political landscapes that inform our sense of the actual landscape. 

 

Q: What first interested you in the borderlands of the American SouthWest?

PTS: I was born there!  As I matured, I kept wanting to know, in a deeper sense, why the place I call “home” looked, felt, and behaved in the ways that it did.

 

Q: What currently has pride of place in the collection?

PTS: A tattered copy of Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac” that was owned, successively (if we are to judge by the scrawled names), by ranchers, forest service rangers, and scientists.  The book’s provenance is a microcosm of the borderlands themselves…

 

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Third Prize-winner Hanaa J. Masalmeh, an undergraduate at Harvard University, chronicles her growing Syrian-American identity through her book collection.

Read her bibliography and essay here: Far From the Eyes, Far From the Heart: My Life as a Syrian-American Muslim.

 

Q: Could you give us a brief description of your collection?

Hanaa J. Masalmeh: The unifying theme of my collection is the journey of accepting my Syrian heritage. The oldest items are the Syrian schoolbooks my mother used to teach me Arabic, followed by picture books I collected in elementary school, and a wide variety of religious texts from middle and high school. In college, my collection really widened in depth and scope; I started to incorporate my grandfather’s writings and Arabic poetry. I couldn’t simply go into a bookstore with an exact book in mind, so a lot of my book-collecting process was about hunting for those precious Easter eggs.

 

Q: When did you first begin consciously collecting these books, as opposed to simply reading them for knowledge or amusement?

HJM: At first, it was a Hansel and Gretel in the woods kind of collection: little morsels of my heritage to find my way out of the deep, dark forest of stereotypes. I never had the luxury of turning on the T.V. and seeing someone who looked like me, so I think the moment I began consciously collecting books was the same moment I felt most out of place—in middle school. I went to mosque book fairs looking for something that would capture the confusing mix of first-generation self-conscious and preteen anxiety that defined my life. Collecting was a way of curating my future self, of creating a new story in which young Muslim women like me were complicated and interesting protagonists, rather than tokens or victims.   

 

Q: What currently has pride of place in the collection?

HJM: Recently, I received a book titled How to Have Fun the Halal Way, which is wonderful, because I’m looking to expand my collection into humor. I’m a stand-up comedian and anthropologist—those two are really the same thing—and I think that humor is the most telling aspect of a culture. Or, as we Syrians say, “If you want to know a people, you need to know what makes them laugh.”

 

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Essay winner Ena Selimovic, of Washington University in St. Louis, wrote movingly about how literature helped her understand her developing identity as a child war refugee growing up in the United States and learning English as a third language. Speaking Bosnian at home, Turkish in the refugee camp, and English in elementary school, Selimovic’s collection is a testament to the multi-cultural, multi-linguistic reality of the modern world, and a reminder of the power of literature to reshape a life fractured by conflict.

Read her essay here: Ja, Ben, I, Je: A Book Collection in Translation.

 

Q: Would you tell us about your personal book collection?

Ena Selimovic: There are more than 1,000 books now. When I first started collecting, I never imagined I would run out of room, but I am. At my parents’ house, I have recently alphabetized my bookshelves to feel a better sense of knowing what I have. Luckily, I still live in the same city as they do, so I can easily access those books during those odd days of dissertation writing when you have this impulsive thought that you need a certain book, and you need it now, and you own it, margin notes and all, and it’s sitting on a shelf twenty miles away.

 

At the place my boyfriend and I share with my books, the main collection is related more specifically to my dissertation project, with many a library book visiting.

 

Q: When did you first begin consciously collecting books, as opposed to simply reading them for knowledge or amusement?

ES: In my junior year of high school, to the dismay of my mathematics teachers, it became clear I would be pursuing literature in college. “Pursuit” seems like the pertinent word here, as reading and writing (with the exception of spelling) had not come easily for me especially after the challenge of learning English. By this point, I had not only pursued Camus, Kafka, Atwood, Dostoevsky, and Coetzee, I vied to be thorough and read all their works (often translations).

I wanted to convert my room into a reading room, so I accumulated bookshelves, and replaced my bed with a wide sofa I could sleep on. At the same time, I became a paranoid reader, taking copious margin notes and recording favorite excerpts into a separate notebook — which proved useful during doctoral comprehensive exams a decade later (though I did not have this foresight!). This habit meant I had to supplement my trips to the library with buying books I saw myself rereading or talking about in some distant future. Related to this paranoia, I think I always had the urge to try not to forget, beginning early on with journaling in elementary school through to my first years of graduate school. I am sure part of reading and journaling in high school became an ideological, existential way for me to understand and to reflect in the mode of the books I had been reading. The books I gravitated toward were most often about war, migration, multilingualism, “alienation,” colonialism, and so on.

I also wanted to track my own development. I distinctly remember deciding I wanted to own all the books I had ever read, to see how far I had gotten in my reading comprehension, partly out of pride and partly out of this need to understand why things tend to turn out the way they do (the omission often being that they tend to turn out poorly) and that they turn out this way for many. Another part of this desire was linked to the fact that my mother had lost all her books during the war. When I visited Bosnia during the summers, I would buy contemporary editions of the books she used to read.

 

Q: What currently has pride of place in your collection?

ES: I’m proud of how many languages are represented in my collection, and that Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian is there among English, French, German, and Spanish. Many languages get sidelined as irrelevant, unimportant, even antithetical to our conception of the literary canon, and I take pride in highlighting translation and the construction of this hierarchy among languages and literatures. As wars target people, they target their languages and cultures, and I take pride in the fact that these books have not been obliterated, though much else has.

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