Beginning with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s question “Where do we find ourselves?” the winner of this year’s Bucknell University Press Book Collection Contest, junior math major Tom Bonan, learned through his years of reading that “[his] best hope at familiarity is in that solitary world of the book.”
Each year, the Press and the Library & IT ask students to enter a contest to reflect on their lives, their learning, and their personal interests through their book collections. With bookstores closing and electronic media becoming more and more popular, we want to encourage the appreciation of a printed book, as well as recognize the importance of the Ellen Clarke Bertrand Library and the University Press, for every great university and institution of learning has, at its center, a great library and a great press.
For Tom, while always a voracious reader, his true journey into literature and the start of his collection began his sophomore year of high school when he “began to keep a journal of what [he] had been reading, jotting down the title, author, and the date [he] finished each book, as well as a few sentences of [his] thoughts of the book at the time.” And it is this period where Tom “genuinely believe[s] was the most important development in [his] life as a thinker, taking in as much of the world as [he] could.”
As Tom writes, “when thinking about my experience with literature, I am drawn to the analogy that life is like being a traveller lost in a forest. The world is rife with things that make you believe that there is a way out, but great works of literature have the opposite effect— the goal is to make you feel comfortable immersing yourself in that overwhelming entity. The point is not to overcome the forest, but to become familiar with it.”
Throughout his essay, as Tom considers Emerson’s question, he looks to French poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s statement “Everything in the world exists to end up in a book,” and he asks “How real is the world of literature? We have to look no further than to one of the plays of Pirandello, where, if we are to believe him, fictional characters are more real than we are because they have found a home in the enduring world of art.”
But then, Tom is forced to question the possible decline of the novel even as he believes “literature has the power to stave off any possible decline. The kind of thinking that is cultivated in literature cannot just disappear without profound discomfort. One can read The Brothers Karamazov and become shocked at how quickly the individual is cast away when culpability really rests in the arms of society. Or one can investigate Plato’s Republic and see that while we may deeply believe in our rule of law, we have a poor understanding of what justice truly is. These works illuminate the profound disconnect between how we perceive the world and the way it genuinely operates.”
As Tom writes, “the deeper one looks inside a book, the more outward they are actually looking into the world…This is ultimately the role reading has taken on for me. They constitute a crucial part of this ongoing, organic process of engagement with the world. I keep track and catalogue the books I read because they are indicative of some sort of stage or ongoing process in my development as a person and as a thinker. This is the main reason that I buy most of the books I read—there is a certain part of me that is held inside these objects that impacts me in a very intimate way. Being surrounded by books—especially by ones that have made a real impression on me—is incredibly comforting. The analogy of the forest isn’t just some poetic statement; it’s a real, engrained process that I myself have gone through.”
Contest runners-up are freshmen Sara Glass and Sasha Carpenter, with collections of religious texts and novels of triumph through suffering, respectively.
After starting her collection several years ago, Sara began slowly and without even realizing it because as her “quest for direction started becoming a larger part of [her] life, [her] collection of religious books became a larger part of [her] library.” With 189 books so far in this specific collection, there’s no sign of it ending anytime soon. Her fascination with the occult and spiritual texts only grows especially as she has yet “to find a Torah, Quran, or any books focused on those two religions. The closest [she has] found is Jewish children’s workbooks and autobiographies, but nothing describing the beliefs and practices of the Jewish and Muslim faiths” which to Sara makes an interesting statement about “social trends and attitudes towards religion.”
With a mind to collecting from thrift shops and used collections, her texts contain plenty of history and unique pieces not found in your everyday bookstore.
For Sara, “another curiosity in my collection, and arguably the most unique, is The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing. My copy of this book is an uncorrected proof. It came before the book was published, has an unofficial paper cover with details such as estimated publication date and number of pages, each page is hand-numbered, and there are numbers in place of the images that would be put in the final published version. I find this to be an absolutely amazing find. This book is certainly rare, if not one of a kind, and as a book enthusiast I find it so interesting to see the step that comes between the author’s first copy and the final published version.”
Sasha, like the others, explores the world and the meaning that can be found in it through literature, although her preference is to discover it through “the degradation of man, the ruin of woman and the dwarfing of childhood” since “if [she] choose[s] to live contentedly and ignore the suffering of others, [she has] learned nothing.”
From Les Miserable to A Thousand Splendid Suns, Sasha “must ask [her]self if [she is] willing to lay aside [her] desires for the sake of another, less fortunate than [her].” Adopted from Russia, Sasha especially connects to these darker themes, knowing how lucky she is to have escaped “a dense weight of oppression.” She takes to heart these stories and the struggles relayed, and understands “it is what [she] choose[s] to do with this knowledge that matters.”