‘It’s a treasure hunt’: Prize encourages student book collectors’ ‘joy of discovery’

Austin Jung’s very first Esperanto book was a “serendipitous find,” he says. While in middle school, he discovered a language and grammar book on the artificial language while browsing a bookstore.

“It was the first book on Esperanto I had ever seen,” says Jung ’14 of Saybrook College, “so I felt compelled to buy it.” He understood how difficult it was to come across Esperanto books “in the wild”: “You feel the need to buy them because you don’t know the next time you’ll see them.”

After that, books in Esperanto “just kept popping up,” says Jung — like one he found in a notebook store in Europe while studying abroad. Before long, he notes, he started purposefully developing this “more unique section” of his bookshelf.

Today, Jung has close to 20 books on Esperanto, a collection that this year earned him a senior Adrian Van Sinderen Book Collecting Prize at Yale. Established in 1957, the Adrian Van Sinderen Book Collecting Prize is awarded annually to seniors, who receive $1,000, and sophomores, who win $700. Adrian Van Sinderen (Class of 1910) was an avid book collector whose legacy at Yale aims to ensure that this rare breed of aficionado is honored at the undergraduate level for having a careful eye and a heavy-hitting book collection.

The other winners of this year’s prize are: Solene Goycochea ’14 of Morse College, who also won a senior prize for her collection on Basque history, and Andrew Koenig ’16 of Jonathan Edwards College, who won the sophomore prize for his collection on Modernism in literature.

Books as an investment

In 1993, Adrian Van Sinderen’s granddaughter Sylvia Van Sinderen joined the judging committee and remains one of the seven current members of the group, which includes one rotating position for a student judge. The committee consists of administrators and scholars around campus, as well as book dealers and, historically, several former prize-winners. The current chair of the committee, William Reese ’77, took home both sophomore and senior prizes during his time at Yale with collections focused on works of Audubon and American bibliography.

Having served on the judging committee for 20 years now, Van Sinderen has vivid memories of meeting with students and judging their collections. A book collector herself, she values her grandfather’s mission in starting the prize. “He had a vast general library, an outstanding collection of rare and antique books,” she says, “and he wanted to encourage and support students to develop … a library they wanted, and for them to be able to support their books, because they are an investment.” She explains that her grandfather wanted to leave a legacy at Yale but insisted on “making a real difference every year.”

This year’s winners all say they’ll use the prize money to further their book collecting goals. Koenig says he is “excited to be able to build [his] collection semi-indefinitely with relative ease just by being awarded the stipend.”

Traditionally, the prize also awards several honorable mentions, in keeping with its mission supporting book collecting on campus. This year honorable mentions went to Sarah Maslin ’14 of Trumbull College for a collection on revolutionary and counterrevolutionary violence in Latin America; Katharine Spooner ’16 of Timothy Dwight College for hers on the metropolitan history of London, and Cristóbal Trujillo’16 of Saybrook College for his on foreign literature and philosophy.

Rewarding 'discrimination and judgment'

To earn the prize is not easy. The official website for the prize notes that “neither the number of books nor their monetary value is the determining factor” in winning. The judges also consider the collections’ “unity of field or subject” and “discrimination and judgment in the selection of titles related to the contestant’s interest.”

The award process begins mid-fall. Written applications detailing the collection and a short statement of interest are sent to the committee. Each member reviews and comments on the written applications; then the committee determines which applicants to see in person. The committee then interviews the selected applicants about their collections, either in their residential college common room or at Van Sinderen’s house.

“When I first started,” recalls Van Sinderen, “we used to see all of the applicants, and it took a week, and we would go to the students’ rooms … so we were going up and down the stairs.” Van Sinderen laughs as she recalls “stomping around the colleges.” Now, the process is much more streamlined, she says. “Nobody had a week to give anymore; life has sped up. We realize this new process saves everyone the trouble, including the applicant.”

Today the committee members interview the finalists over the course of one day and meet over dinner that same evening “while it’s fresh in our minds — this was my grandfather’s idea,” Van Sinderen adds. “It’s very convivial. We’ve been stimulated by what we’ve seen so we’re very energized.” The personal interview is a key part of the process, she notes. “Not until you see the students share their passion do you get a feel for what they’re all about.”        

Jung recalls the joy of sharing his Esperanto collection: “I’m not sure if the judges could understand what they were reading [in Esperanto] but they seemed interested.” Koenig agrees: “It was a really good opportunity to express my indulgence in a specific literary taste to … people who are obviously a cut from the same block.”

The number of applicants for the prize has risen over the years. For Van Sinderen, reflects the growing — and changing — interest in book collecting.

 “When my grandfather set the prize up, there were very common notions of book collection and what kinds of literature people collected. But he realized books are as personal as the individual,” says Van Sinderen. Nowadays, she says, the collections submitted “reflect the changes of the world” — ranging in subjects from the farming industry to civil rights to graphic novels.

“We not only see wonderful collections,” says Van Sinderen, “but we learn about related activities that the students engage in, which are really eye-opening.” Listening to the interviewees speak about their passion in book collecting is often like receiving a condensed lecture on the topic, she says, “We alwayslearn something. She has also “made some really good friends” through the experience: “It’s such a bonding experience. Some of it is really deep and meaningful but some of it is just really good fun.”

'It's a treasure hunt! It's magic!"

The winning students all say there is something about book collecting itself — not reading, or owning, but the combination of stumbling upon and preserving — that is thrilling. Van Sinderen refers to this as the “joy of discovery” and says the committee often hears students talk about “going into a used bookstore and seeing what they’ll find, and then discovering something they hadn’t anticipated, or that they had been looking for. It’s a treasure hunt! It’s magic.”

Koenig, for instance, found his copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Hundred Years of Solitude” in a “really lovely little bookstore” while on vacation with his mother in Vermont. He recalls being guided around the store by a “sweet old man who took us by the hand” and seeing this “beautiful copy” of Marquez’s work with a painted illustration on the cover. “I just have very fond memories of reading it in the car while we drove around,” he says.

Similarly, it was “love at first sight” for Goycochea when she saw a signed copy of Jorge Luis Borges’ “Ficciones” in a bookstore when she was 15.

There is also the aesthetic appeal of book collecting, note the winners. Koenig says that many collectors share “an obsession with the tactility and authenticity behind the object of the book” and that he enjoys “the aesthetic pleasure of buying a very beautiful book.”

Jung notes that book collecting is also an act of preservation. “I like this idea that at the end of my lifetime, I can look back on this huge collection and think I accomplished a certain goal of bringing together disparate parts that had been disunited.”            

Goyochea also says her collection of works on Basque history has an underlying purpose. “Everyone sees the value of preserving a first or signed edition of Proust, Hemingway, etc.,” she says. “I try to collect and preserve the rare editions of books whose value is not yet fully recognized.” Her search for the works of Borges, Vargas Llosa, Carpentier, and Garcia Marquez, she adds, is an attempt to honor those works that have not enjoyed “greater representation within the Western Canon” because they were written in Spanish, rather than English.

A whole world inside a book

To both the collectors and the prize committee members, it is clear that — despite the rise of the digital age — books are here to stay. “They are living,” says Van Sinderen. “You open them up and there’s a whole world in there. Nothing can replace the experience of sitting down with a book … It’s just a really great way to escape.” She speaks enthusiastically about the “smells of old memories,” the textures of the paper, the design, and how the object itself relates to the subject matter.

 “Lots of people at Yale collect books,” says Jung, “but there is not much recognition of it beside the Van Sinderen Prize, which is why it is so important. This is a hobby that a lot of us have that often doesn’t get recognized or talked about.” Goycochea, who won the prize during her sophomore year as well, said the prize helped expand her collection throughout her time in college.

Asked what will happen to their book collections in the future, the winners all spoke about sharing their discoveries with others.

“I hope one day to pass it down to my children,” says Koenig, “or to people whom I know will truly appreciate them, the way they ought to be.”

“I like when books switch hands that many times,” says Jung. “We can eschew the commercial aspects of gift-giving and disseminate an idea, a feeling in this intimate way. … I’d like to think that my books will have a life after me.”

Goyochea will eventually loan her collection to the Santa Barabara Presidio Museum for display, but for now, she says “there are still a few books I would like to add to my collection.”