(HOST) For more than fifty years, commentator Bill Mares has collected
autographed books. A few months ago, he gave that collection of several
hundred volumes to the St. Michael’s College library.
Collecting autographed books in some ways is like collecting baseball
cards, stamps or beer cans. There is first the heady ignition of the
hunt, the steady fire of accumulation and the glowing coals of satisfied
What distinguishes autographed books is their
direct inky link to the hand of the creator. That signature intensifies
the ideas and experiences the book contains. You don’t just own the
book; you "own" the writer. Signed books are things of the mind, made
concrete. The often illegible signatures become instant icons. The first
autographed book I owned was a biography of Abraham Lincoln, by a
former student of my mother’s.
Then, I began collecting
autographed books on my own in college, when I sought out the signatures
in books of several professors.
Later on my mother passed on to
me volumes by Gunter Grass, Lady Bird Johnson, and Henry Kissinger. My
brother who had lived in Washington D.C. boosted the collection with
dozens of books on current affairs which he picked up at author
appearances. Madeleine Albright, Helen Thomas, Thomas Friedman and
others. Another set were those found on dusty back shelves in
now-forgotten bookstores, by Pearl Buck, Booth Tarkington, Ida Tarbell,
Admiral Richard Bird. Each find was like fishing for perch and hooking a
The largest number of books came from simply asking. I
wrote letters to many authors through their publishers, saying something
to prove I had read the book and asked for a signature. Several Vermont
writers I could approach directly, David Huddle, Howard Mosher, John
Elder. When J.M. Coetzee, the South African novelist (and eventual Nobel
Prize winner) spoke at Middlebury, I "bribed" the public relations
director with some honey to get two of Coetzee’s books signed.
of my favorite acquisitions was was UP FRONT, Bill Mauldin’s famous
collection of WW II cartoons. I’d asked him for a signature as I left
Chicago, where we both worked for the Sun
-Times newspaper. Months, years passed. Nothing. Finally, it arrived,
not just with a signature but one of his distinctive drawings in color
with the inscription, "I may be late but I get there! Bill."
really quite rational about this hobby. If I were addicted, I would
sail to Martha’s Vineyard and troll the parties of the intelligentsia.
But I’m not.
I probably wouldn’t have developed this hobby if I
hadn’t been a life-long reader and small-time author myself. But books
have warmed my life, and autographed books, like firewood I split
myself, warm me twice.