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Five Recognized with Undergraduate Book Collecting Prize
Winners of the 2017 Undergraduate Book Collecting Prize

Mathematics major Xavier González was in third grade when he discovered the book The Number Devil, about a third-grader, like himself, named Robert. “Like Robert, The Number Devil showed me how mathematics is beautiful, exciting, and connected, with a reappearing cast of characters popping up in the most unexpected, yet appropriate places, just like an intricate and well-told story.”

It was this book that ignited his love for math and his collection of “Books That Count: Books and DVDs Calculated to Inspire Children and Young Adults to Explore the Wonderful World of Mathematics,” which was recently awarded first place in the Visiting Committee Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting competition. The prize is awarded annually to recognize and encourage book collecting by undergraduates at Harvard.

In addition to his own selections, many of the books in González’s collection are gifts from family members, teachers and friends. “I cherish these gifts as even more special than any book I chose on my own because they show how math brings people together.” He believes that “everyone can come to love math through our fundamental need to tell and hear and share stories. The Spanish language uses the same verb—contar—for counting numbers and telling a story. For me, mathematics is a story, with a beginning and a middle, but with no end. So, too, my collection of math books.”

Second place was awarded to Christopher Colby for his entry “A Collection of the Classics and More: Unweeded.” While González's collection revolved around a central subject, Colby’s eschewed traditional categorization, and took to heart the physical life of the books themselves. “This collection focuses on the literature that I have accumulated over the past years that has in some shape or form been discarded or passed in order to secondhandedly find its way into my own library,” said Colby. “The unifying elements of the collection can be traced to the themes of the books, which reflect the areas of my current study in the classics, music, and German literature, as well as the unappreciated significance of each book’s unique background.” Two books that exemplify Colby’s collecting process are a small collection of Goethe’s poetry and a pocket edition of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. “Ross’s translation of the Ethics has served as a cornerstone to my library and my reading of the work, ever since I happened upon it from a free book vendor on the streets of downtown Chicago. Goethe’s Gedichte—a small book from the discard pile of the German department of Dartmouthenraptured me throughout my studies at Dartmouth and the year following. To place these books in any single category is difficult. They do, however, share a common theme: the theme of being salvaged from their neglect, and brought to surface again as a possession that can shape the world for me.”

Third-place honors were shared by John Bourjaily for his entry “My Collection, or: How I Learned to Start Thinking and Fear the Bombers,” Corey Husic for “Humans and the Environment: Works that Drew Me Closer to Nature,” and Richard Yarrow for “Observing the Fall of Democracy in the Twentieth Century.”

The books in Bourjaily’s collection relate to the air war in World War II, including firsthand accounts, academic works, novels, and other works from the 1940s to the present. “Specifically, it focuses on the change in perception of aerial combat from pseudo-knightly warfare to an instrument of terror that occurred during the Second World War,” Bourjaily explained. “More important, though, is the transformation that has taken place in my thinking over the years. These books helped spur me to question my previous outlooks and delve deeper into the discussion. Being able to adopt, or at least understand, the views of opposing sides allows me to better understand and empathize with those whose views differ from my own, as well as strengthen my understanding of my own beliefs and better learn how to effectively argue for them.”

For Corey Husic, it was Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds—a gift from his mother when he was two years old—that started his collection and passion for natural history. “I would spend hours with this field guide and binoculars roaming the woods and meadows in search of species like the brilliant scarlet tanager or the cryptic Lincoln’s sparrow.” His focus soon shifted from one species group to another, and his book collection grew along the way. “It was through books that I was able to evolve my appreciation of nature into a desire to preserve it.

“Most importantly,” Husic said, “my collection is not solely for my enjoyment. If I find someone who will greatly benefit from a book that is simply sitting on my shelf, I have no reservations giving it up. I only hope that it inspires that person in the way so many of these books have inspired me.”

Yarrow’s entry represents a collection of philosophical, theoretical, and literary texts that explore what democracy is and what role it can or should play in society, as well as how it can fail. “It might be wondered whether the works in this collection are predictive or prescriptive for our current politics,” Yarrow noted. “I, however, would rather concentrate on this collection’s potential to show democracy’s own fundamental value and needs, beyond the structure and means by which a collapse might occur. By observing the fall of democracy in the 20th century, and how much it has symbolized for so many people, we can better realize that our own must be engaged with, cherished, and protected.”

“Anyone reading our undergraduate book collectors’ essays and meeting them will be struck by the boundless curiosity, passion, and ingenuity that their collecting demonstrates,” said Elizabeth Kirk, Associate University Library for Scholarly Resources, who recently hosted a congratulatory event for the prizewinners. “The Library is so very pleased to be involved with these prizes, which offer us and the whole Harvard community the opportunity to see how varied and deep our students’ intellectual interests are—spend an hour with our prizewinners and you will be energized.”

At the event, each winner was presented with a cash prize—$3,000 for first prize, $1,500 for second, and $750 for third—and a copy of Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book Hunter in the Twenty-First Century by Nicholas A. Basbanes.

Established in 1977, the Visiting Committee Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting is sponsored by the Members of the Board of Overseers’ Committee to Visit the Harvard Library. Students competing for the book collecting prize submit an annotated bibliography and an essay on their collecting efforts; the influence of mentors; the experience of searching for, organizing and caring for items; and the future direction of the collection.

Eighteen students declared their intention to enter the competition, and 11 submitted their work for consideration. The judges this year were Stephen Kuehler, Research Librarian in Services for Academic Programs; Lynn Sayers, Administration and Events Coordinator in Lamont Library and Maps, Media, Data and Government Information; Martin Schreiner, Librarian of Lamont Library and Director of Maps, Media, Data and Government Information; and David Weimer, Librarian for Cartographic Collections and Learning in the Harvard Map Collection.

An exhibition featuring items from the winners' collections will be on display on the second and third floors of Lamont Library starting May 22.

By Lynn Sayers, Administration and Events Coordinator in Lamont Library and Maps, Media, Data and Government Information.

Published on May 10, 2017.