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Four Recognized with Undergraduate Book Collecting Prize

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The winners of the 2011 Visiting Committee Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting met recently with jury members and Roy E. Larsen Librarian of Harvard College Nancy Cline. From left, Meghan Cleary ’11, Alexander Konrad ’11, Cline, Peter Bernard ’11, Samuel Milner ’13, Susan Fliss, Michael Leach and Fred Burchsted.

 

April 29, 2011 – Following his sophomore year at Harvard, Peter Bernard ’11, spent the summer working in a rare book store in Tokyo. An East Asian Studies concentrator, Bernard had nurtured an interest in Japanese literature since high school, but it was that summer that he discovered and began collecting books by Izumi Kyōka, a key figure in the birth of modern Japanese literature, and the author who would later become the focus of his senior thesis.

In addition to playing a key role in his thesis, Bernard’s collection “Flowers in a Mirror: Izumi Kyōka and his Contexts,” was recently awarded first place in the Visiting Committee Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting. Second place was awarded to Alexander Konrad ’11, for his collection, “Roots in Conflict: Family History and America’s Military Tradition.” Two students received third place honors – Meghan Cleary ’11, for her entry, “Woman and Her Body, Me and Mine,” and Samuel Milner ’13, for his collection, “The Good Book Says, A Collection of Over Three Millennia of Jewish Culture, History and Thought.”

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What is it that makes a winning collection? According to Research Librarian Fred Burchsted, one of three judges who reviewed the submissions, the four winners stood out for their “enthusiasm and personal connection with their subjects, combined with diverse and interesting collecting activities.” Associate Librarian for Research, Teaching and Learning Susan Fliss and Michael Leach, Head of Collection Development in the Cabot Science Library also served as judges for this year’s competition.

Though often cited as an influence by other Japanese writers, Kyōka (1873 – 1939) remains largely unknown in the West, with only a handful of his works translated into English. Because his work often includes references to the superstition, ghosts and the supernatural, critics have long regarded him as merely an author of fantasy. Bernard, however, argues that Kyōka’s influence is more far-reaching.

“I see Kyōka as being a key to understanding the meta-narrative that gets told about Japanese literature, which at its center, is about a tradition of realism and naturalism,” Bernard said. “Kyōka’s novels, however, are often very supernatural and very surreal, so I was trying to understand where he fits into the Japanese literary tradition, particularly since so many Japanese authors look to him as a modern master.”

Though his full collection includes material that covers a wide range of Japanese literature, Bernard selected 50 books by and about Kyōka – about half of which he purchased during his summer working in Tokyo – for his entry. He decided to enter the competition, he said, after realizing that there was a coherent thread that ran through the items he had collected over the years.

“It’s really a collection of works – both novels and also secondary literature – pertaining to modern Japanese literature,” Bernard said. “The focus of it is on Kyōka himself, but it also deals with what I called his ‘contexts’ – things that influenced him and his influence on other authors.”

For second-place-winner Alexander Konrad’s it was his family that provided the inspiration to start collecting books.

With a member of his family serving in the military in every American war from the Revolution through the Korean War, Konrad’s collection was both a way to connect with family members he never knew, and to understand the roots of their service.

“I started this collection when I was very young, so the first books I collected tended to be on very broad topics, like the Civil War,” said the history concentrator. “As I got older, I began to hone in on where my family fit in, and began targeting specific books on the units my relatives fought in. For example, my great-great-grandfather fought with a unit called the Lightning Brigade in the Civil War, so I have several books on that unit.”

“What I’ve found is that there are similarities throughout the generations of service. The challenges my great-grandfather faced serving in World War I were very similar to those faced by people who served in Korea or the Civil War. It deepens my understanding of why my relatives served, and their impact on my life.”

As a sophomore, third-place-winner Meghan Cleary began working with a group called ECHO (Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach) that works with women who are struggling with eating disorders or body image issues. Spurred in part by that work, her burgeoning interest in feminism and women’s body issues intersected with her decision to declare a concentration in religion, as she began studying women’s role in religion and feminist philosophy.

 “I began to think about women in religion, and how they often have a special relationship with their bodies,” Cleary said. “At the same time, I was very interested in the feminist philosophy of religion, so my collection definitely mirrors the trajectory of my interests while I’ve been here at Harvard.”

Samuel Milner, who shared third place honors with Cleary, said his collection was a way of tracing his Jewish heritage across a wide variety of genres, from history to religious texts to detective fiction.

“There is a common thread, a common heritage that runs through everything,” he said. “For example, I included some books from the Rabbi Small series, which is a murder mystery series, but it just so happens that the rabbi is solving the mystery. So you can say it’s a murder mystery, but that’s only one side of it. It’s a Jewish murder mystery. There’s a central source, a central tradition, and no matter how far out you go, there is some recognition of that.”

Established in 1977, the Visiting Committee Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting is awarded annually to recognize and encourage book collecting by undergraduates at Harvard. The prize is sponsored by the Members of the Board of Overseer's Committee to Visit the Harvard University Library. The first prize winner receives a cash award of $1,500, the second prize winner receives $1,000 and third place receives $750. 

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. Sixteen students declared their intention to enter the competition and six submitted their work for consideration.

An exhibition featuring items from the winners' collections will be on display on the second and third floors of Lamont Library, starting May 20.