Home > Guest Post > Becoming a Bibliophile, 1950-1970

Becoming a Bibliophile, 1950-1970

GUEST POST: by Oliver B. Pollak

My mother read me Curious George, I read it to my children and grandchildren. The earliest books in my library were gifted and inscribed midcentury. My uncle, Eric Bonner, an antiquarian book dealer in London, gave me Speed, one of my sons added his book plate. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe came from Leslie who I do not remember.

My 1950s tastes were adventure, war and heroism and stamp collecting. I pedaled my bike to Audubon Junior High School which had a library and to Leimert Park Library, consuming Horatio Hornblower Napoleonic War series by C. S. Forester, and the Battle of Stalingrad.

I crossed the threshold of my first used bookstore around 1961, age 18, near Manual Arts Senior High School in Los Angeles. I paid a quarter for Modern Library edition of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. During the early 1960s I shelved books at the Baldwin Hills Branch Library on La Brea Avenue. I completed my Bachelor’s degree in 1964 at California State College, Los Angeles, with an eclectic Social Science major. UCLA graduate school beckoned.

Some undergraduate CSCLA Social Science major readings, 1961-64

The CSCLA and UCLA academic cultures differed. CSCLA teachers and the J.F. Kennedy Library were adequate. UCLA’s infectious motivation of publish was in the air, the library expansive and bookshelves surrounded professors in their offices. Visits to Wilbur Smith Acres of Books in Long Beach netted Moscow editions by Lenin. Gene de Chene Books on Santa Monica Blvd opened in 1968 (sold to Samantha Scully in 2003, Gene died in 2008 at the age of 88) provided Stanley Wolpert’s Nine Hours to Rama). Wilbur and Ida Needham’s Books Finders (est. 1930s to at least 1970?), provided review copies. Zeitlin & Ver Brugge on North La Cienega Blvd. displayed books beyond my means, thrift shops had affordable curiosities.

After one semester at UCLA The American War in Vietnam (as the Vietnamese call it) heated up, President Johnson called up the Reserves and in May 1965 I went on active duty in the U.S. Navy, a case of graduate school interrupted. I took an academic reading list along but seasickness and nausea interfered with concentration.

As a Personnelman I managed the ship’s small library. Military book culture included dirt cheap pirate editions of best sellers, and as Robert Timberg described in Blue-Eyed Boy: A Memoir (2014) “Hong Kong fuck books, which just seemed somehow to materialize….the products of an enterprising publisher in the British Crown colony….Many of these books [were] replete with misspellings, capitalization, and exclamation points.” As I recall they were mimeographed. HKFB have not been recognized by Wikipedia, bibliographies, abebooks, collectors, eBay or library special collections status, treatment that has been accorded to Mexico’s Tijuana Bibles.

In Fall 1967 I returned to UCLA with Southeast Asia under my belt. During the interim quarters had replaced semesters. I completed my History Ph.D. program on the G.I. Bill supplemented by a working wife, managing the UCLA bindery and an out of the apartment discount bookstore, Briti-Books. I felt intellectually attached to my purchases, inspiration being more important than possession. I had a rubber stamp prepared, “Ex Librus, Oliver B. Pollak.” The printer caught my misspelling of Libris.

Friends of the UCLA Library held book sales in front of the University Research Library. They filled my shelves with small press books, curiosities and ephemera. Retiring professors left books to the library, duplicates sold at bargain prices. Some of Professor Frank Klingberg’s (1883-1968) English and Caribbean history books went my way. I picked up a couple of seedling Grabhorn and Ward Ritchie imprints.

Robert Schaeffer, a campus bookstore employee, had a small press. We gave this 2 x 2 inch miniature to my mother-in-law and it came back to me after her death. I have been composing Haikus since the late 1960s.

In 1970 we went to England to do research for my dissertation, a combination of English and Burmese history, potential future Southeast Asia troubles. My father wrote author and title on graph paper and put numbered labels on 225 book spines. Mother typed a corresponding list of left behind books on onion skin paper with her mid-century Hermes 3000.

The list is heavy with Burma. About 40-years later some of the Burma books were donated to the University of Nebraska at Omaha Library from whom I had to check them out when I wanted to use them.

Acquisitions started in 1970 in London’s fabled antiquarian bookstores, extending to Zimbabwe, Nebraska, and poring over book catalogues, then the internet. My enthusiasm for print culture took a giant leap in 1999 when I met Neil Shaver of Yellow Barn Press in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He introduced me to “books about books” and Oak Knoll Books. I acquired the Oak Knoll catalogues 1-202 in 1999. Book lovers contemplate the perfect book, I envision a perfect working library, that the internet has made possible. Twenty years later about 300 Oak Knoll catalogues were donated to San Francisco’s American Bookbinders Museum.

Fifty-one years on from 1970, a half-century filled with teaching, reading, research, writing, publishing, lawyering and travel, provided opportunities to acquire books to support the intellect and pleasure. They are educational building blocks, a crafted reference library

As a young graduate student in the 1960s I gathered books as intellectual investments. My teachers were cosseted in their offices by bookshelves. Preparing to leave Nebraska in 2016 few undergraduate, graduate students or faculty members were interested in my books. I could not give them away. Afterall, they were available in libraries, were old, online, and economically available on the internet. We disposed of about 2,000 volumes by sale, gifts to friends and donations to libraries. The majority of the English history books were disposed of in Omaha.

In 2019 I visited the home library of Ellen Huppert, a deceased colleague. She had lived in the same house for over 40 years. We were in graduate school around the same time. I was taken aback and gratified by the sameness of the books on her shelf and that familiar sag in the center. It could have been my bookshelves. Ellen had 33 books on the shelf, I owned at least 25, eight came to Richmond; a library or a museum of like minds reeking of Victorian England.

A shelf from the library of Ellen Huppert (1936-2018) who earned her doctorate in 1970. My remaining 1960s matching volumes reflect essential canonical readings and symmetry.

Books are emblems in our lives. New interests and acquisitions require shelf space. The 1960s acquisitions were veterans, totems, retained more for sentimental than professional reasons. I proceeded to dismantle and dispose of books. I have not looked at the contents in over two decades. Inertia and inability to let go explains retention. I harbored an idea that there might be an overarching story in the kept books, a retrospective. I started this essay on May 1, 2021.

One of my mentors, D. Cresap Moore (1925-2001), studied under G. Kitson Clark (1900-75) at Cambridge. I read Clark’s An Expanding Society, Britain 1830-1900 (1967) 53 years ago. Marginalia, underlining, blue and black fountain pen and yellow highlighting on page 88 tellingly revealed that I thought print culture significant.

The books on my shelves are bay windows into my interests as student, educator, missionary for reading and fervor for books about books.

(GUEST POST: by Oliver B. Pollak)

Categories: Guest Post
  1. judith j gaeddert
    May 19, 2021 at 12:05 am

    While reading through your post I immediately thought of my husband and his love for books and the care and attention he gave as he rearranged his collection while carefully culling and giving away text books to young aspiring historians. Following his death it took seven years and a move for me to part with his collection. I definitely related to Oliver Pollak’s Post. As a widow I tried to honor my husband’s interest but could not help feeling sad and inadequate as many books were not appreciated or valued in the manner of which he loved his collection. Thank you for sending me your post as I could appreciate and relate as a spouse of a history professor whom would have appreciated and agreed with your post.

  2. DA Carpenter
    May 19, 2021 at 8:46 am

    How often do you go through your massive library of books? Libraries seem like a dying trend. I hope they pick up again. So much free knowledge.

  3. Laura
    May 21, 2021 at 9:22 pm

    Thank you Oliver! I love learning more about your life by reading your articles.

  4. Kathy Laughlin
    May 23, 2021 at 8:00 pm

    Oliver, I enjoyed your post which stimulated me to develop a nostalgic timeline of my own personal history as a reader. When I was young, history was not something I particularly enjoyed. My focus was only upon memorizing all of those events and characters for some test, and I did not grasp the significance that history is really story telling. Now that I am an old lady, I find history [and other topics that I summarily dismissed in the past] to be totally interesting and absorbing. It is sad to realize that books and objects that we feel strongly about are not so appreciated by others. With the internet, the average person can read a much wider range of content with much less depth than reading books. I am reading for work and life all the time, but your comments make me feel that I need to make a conscious effort to read well-written books on a regular basis just for the pleasure of it.

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