Collecting stories from afar
Students present literature from Asia, Africa and North America to win 2014 Visiting Committee Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting
2014 Visiting Committee Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting winners Gillian Manley, Debbie Onuoha and Wilder Wohns
By Beth Giudicessi, HCL Communications
May 2, 2014 –Harvard College sophomore Wilder Wohns grew up in Tacoma, Wash. with a world globe in his bedroom – an aging hand-me-down from his brothers. To him, its most striking location was the country that stretched from Eastern Europe to the Pacific, from islands near the Arctic Circle to mountains bordering the Himalayas: the vast stretch of land labeled “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”
Wohns’ interest in the remote Asian continent led to an infatuation with Russia and the former Soviet Union. For his thirteenth birthday, he requested The Collected Works of Lenin; the Soviet national anthem topped his “most played” song list. As his captivation grew, so did his collection of related books. Those books, and Wohns’ essay about what they mean to him, earned him first place for the 2014 Visiting Committee Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting.
“I was fascinated by both the cities with exotic names and the spaces with no names at all,” Wohns wrote in his entry for the competition. “In a sense, my collection is a grand attempt to understand the mystery of those maps.”
Blank on the Map by Eric Shipton is Wohn’s favorite book and it inspired the name for his collection, Blank on My Map: Unraveling Asia’s Mystique. In the book, Shipton describes exploring the Karakorum mountain range between Pakistan, India and China and the challenge of inspecting remote places. “It is precisely those passions that Shipton and I share,” said Wohns, a Human Evolutionary Biology concentrator who also studies Japanese and has spent summers there learning about the language and culture. “The desire to explore, to go to the extreme places of the earth, and to learn who and what is there motivates my collecting.”
This year’s other winners reflect similar worldliness
Second prize winner Debbie Onuoha ’15, a joint concentrator in History and Literature and Social Anthropology, won for her entry, Novels, Poetry, Plays and Short Stories Written About Africa, a collection that began her freshman year as a way to reconnect to her home after being far from it for the first time. Onuoha was born in Lagos, Nigeria and grew up in Accra, Ghana. “In many ways my collection has served as a means by which I establish connections not only to the stories themselves but also to people and places around me,” Onuoha wrote in her prize submission.
Senior Gillian Manley, a native of Nova Scotia, Canada who is studying works of fiction by and about Canadians, won third prize. She starting collecting books as a child but became more intentional about reading Canadian authors after moving outside her homeland by coming to Harvard. “Now I think whoever isn’t reading the Canadian literary giants is really missing out,” she said.
The three winners from three countries were chosen from a large pool of applicants. Selection committee members Gregory Eow, Charles Warren Bibliographer for American History, Anna Esty, research librarian, and Megan Sniffin-Marinoff, University archivist, joined Vice President for the Harvard Library and Roy E. Larsen Librarian for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Sarah Thomas, Associate Librarian of Harvard College for Research, Teaching and Learning Susan Fliss, Associate Librarian of Harvard College for Collection Development Dan Hazen and Administration and Events Coordinator Lynn Sayers for a congratulatory celebration in the Office of the Librarian on May 1.
At the event, each winner was presented a cash prize and a copy of Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book Hunter in the Twenty-First Century by Nicholas A. Basbanes. The book guides collectors on traditional methods of acquisition and it evaluates the pros and cons of Internet buying and electronic tools – a topic not far from the minds of the prizewinners and the jury when, at the celebration, they discussed their affinity for printed books and the changing landscape of reading.
Judges applauded the applicants for submitting thoughtful, imaginative essays, recognizing that their book collecting and leisure reading takes place in addition to regular academic work.
“I think for all three of you, you came out in the paper,” said Snifflin-Marinoff told the winners. “Why you’re doing what you’re doing shone through in all of your applications.”
The Visiting Committee Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting is now in its 34th year. It was established to recognize and encourage book collecting by Harvard’s undergraduates. As in years past, winners will be featured in an ongoing exhibit in Lamont Library starting May 26.
Members of this year’s selection committee appreciated the contest for showing how a collection represents its collector. “I think the greatest benefit of book collecting is that your growth as a person reflects the books that interest you, and reading and interacting with the books in turn helps you to discover more about who you are,” said Esty. “The collection truly evolves in response to your own development.”