What drives someone to collect something? An attempt to revive a faded memory? The pride that comes from finding a rare piece no one else has? A penchant for the history behind a set of stamps? Or maybe the peculiar sound of engines from certain brands of cars? The reasons why someone pursues a collection of things are many.
When it comes to the realm of books, the reasons for collecting a set can be just as varied. Some book collectors may want to acquire the writings of a certain group or movement. Others might desire all of the first editions of a specific author.
I recently had the pleasure to re-assemble the books that the collector William Stewart amassed over the course of many years. When it comes to the Stewart Collection at the Avery Research Center, it was difficult for me to instantly find the bond that unites the various books that comprise it. With some books dating to years as early as 1838 (Recollections of a Southern Matron by Carolina H. Gilman) and spanning nearly the entire 20th century (Gullah Night Before Christmas by Virginia M. Geraty), the time frame is as broad as the subjects covered. I later learned of William Stewart’s professional life as a linguist and his specialization in Gullah, which explains many of the regional works. But one aspect that literally draws ones eye to the collection, however, is the simple visual appeal.
For some of the books, it is the cover art found on the dust jackets. Others lacking their original dust jackets offer a rare glimpse into the way books used to be printed and published, delighting the reader who opens them with a sheet of “onion skin” paper covering the title page.
One book that interested me was a 1958 copy of The Hatterasman by Ben Dixon MacNeill, illustrated by Claude Howell. At first glance, one may not find the dust jacket for The Hatterasman so amazing. It is not elegantly colored, with only black line drawings set on a background of varying shades of blue. Yet when one opens the book and reads the description of the contents, the significance of the cover is realized.
The description on the inside of the dust jacket has the following to say:
“I am not a historian and this is not a history,” insists Ben Dixon MacNeill. “I have undertaken to profile a race of men that have been shaped by event and circumstance in the little world of these two islands in four and a half centuries.’ In so doing the author deals especially with the sand and the wind and the water as they exist in vital relationship with the Islanders…”
And with this description the dust jacket reads as easily as the words inside. The blue ocean fades to lighter tones towards the bottom of the cover, and readily one finds the Islander the description mentions made out in a line drawing. He sits on an old wooden box, the type of crate one might typically find by any dockside, and casually, yet attentively, looks down to the work he has in his hands. The bill of his cap hides his unique identity, highlighting the fact that he is but one of the group of Islanders who MacNeill writes about.
As one continues to follow the lines of the man, their eyes eventually must skip to the scenery behind him. As the line drawing recedes into the background, the lines condense into the shape of a wooden shack and an offshore fishing boat beyond. The sun sets in the far background, possibly reflecting the fading activities of a group of men and a way of life that used to thrive off the coast of North Carolina.
For anyone who agrees with the old saying, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” they may wish to reconsider their opinion should they visit the Avery Research Center to view the Stewart Collection. For even if the contents of the books don’t appeal to the readers, it just may be the case that the cover art and unique printings will.