A blog about the famous Victorian poet, designer, and Socialist, William Morris.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Morrisian Interview Series, #2: John J. Walsdorf

John J. Walsdorf, the talented Portland-based collector and author, has been collecting William Morris and Kelmscott Press related books and ephemera for almost fifty years, while also working on other collections. He is currently the Vice President of the William Morris Society, and serves on the board of the Lake Oswego Preservation Society.

Among his many publications are a complete bibliography of the work of author Julian Symons; a book on the American printer Elbert Hubbard; and a memoir about his experiences, entitled "On Collecting William Morris," which was brought out in a fittingly beautiful, limited edition volume by The Printery. Happily, there are also records of all his impressive Morris collections, even those which have been sold on. The first collection can be found in his 1983 book William Morris in Private Press and Limited Editions: A Descriptive Bibliography of Books by and About William Morris; the second lives on in his 1994 volume, William Morris and the Kelmscott Press; and two years later, the third was preserved in Kelmscott Press: William Morris & His Circle.

I met up with him this January at the Modern Language Association conference in Boston, and it was on a cold, sunny day that we convened to the marble-floored lobby of the Fairmont Hotel. There, perched on some Queen Anne furniture in a corner dominated by a big, jungly potted plant, we began our wide-ranging chat, touching on Morris, the future of the book, and the surprises that can hide in bookstores (or even in your own collection, if it's large enough).

Your collecting career can be broken into distinct stages—might you be able to talk us through that progression a bit? How did it start?

Well, first of all, I would say that I am a life-long collector. When I was really young, 6-12, I was serious about stamp collecting, and I still have those collections. In high school, I didn’t do any formal collecting, but I did a tremendous amount of reading.

When I did my undergraduate work—and I was an English major—I started collecting books, but reading copies only. Especially American and English literature: I really liked Maugham, Hardy, Dreiser, Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But it was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where I really got into collecting, and I started collecting fine press books and fine printing on a very, very modest budget.

I would haunt the local used bookstores, especially one in downtown Madison called Paul’s Book Store, and I would go in there and I would just spend my time looking for beautifully printed books and interesting books. It was also at graduate school that a professor of mine at the school of library science, Rachel K. Shenck, introduced me to Kelmscott Press books. She actually owned two Kelmscott Press books, and she brought them to the class, and she passed them around. And she let us handle and look at them, and I simply fell in love with the printing of the Kelmscott Press books.

And really, after that introduction, I knew I wanted to find a way to go to England. And I was lucky enough to get a job, on a library exchange position program two years after graduating from U.W. Madison: I got an exchange at the Oxford City Library.

It must have been wonderful to work in the library of such a literary city.

Yes: the wonder of Oxford was not just the buildings, nor the bookshops, nor the city of Oxford itself, but also the people.  Which leads me to my most famous encounter, and for the truth in the saying: "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

One of the patrons at the City Library was J.R.R. Tolkien, and one day I remarked to some of my colleagues at the library that I was going to send him a copy of The Hobbit to inscribe.  They thought that that was simply an unbelievable idea, the thought of sending him a copy of my book to inscribe was unheard of, at least to them.  Nevertheless I did it, and a number of weeks passed, without the return of my book.  

Then late one winter's evening, just as it was getting dark, there was a knock at the door of my flat, and there stood Professor Tolkien, with the book in hand, returning it not only inscribed, but also with a letter thanking me for my interest, and the stamps I had enclosed to make mailing the book to me all the easier!

How long did you live in Oxford?

I only lived in Oxford 15 months, far too short a time, as I really felt at home and I fell in love with the city. Well, after the library position, I was hired by Blackwell’s, a job and various positions that lasted 31 years. I became friends with Sir Basil Blackwell, and that friendship led us to share stories about Morris and Kelmscott, and of course he did most of the sharing, telling me stories about May Morris and his experiences meeting her, and publishing William Morris Artist Writer Socialist by May Morris at the Shakespeare Head Press in 1936.
Blackwell's bookshop, Oxford, c. 1950s

Sir Basil Blackwell also showed me his personal copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer that he had on a stand in his library, and that copy is now owned by his son, Julian Blackwell. And it really was at that time, when I worked in Oxford, that I became an avid collector of Kelmscott Press. I still collected other presses, some really nice fine presses, Doves and Golden Cockerel, but primarily I fell under the influence of both Sir Basil Blackwell and William Morris. I started collecting Kelmscott Press books, and Kelmscott ephemera, and that collecting has gone on for now… almost fifty years, and during that time I’ve built a number of collections, some of which I had to sell for financial reasons. Now I’m on my fourth Kelmscott Press collection, and I currently own 26 Kelmscott Press books.

I also collect other fine American presses. I collect Yellow Barn Press; I have every book from the Yellow Barn Press. I collect Prairie Press of Iowa; I have about 50 books from that press. The Adagio Press, which was located in Harper Woods Michigan, run by a man named Leonard Bahr—an absolutely excellent printer—and I have a large collection of Adagio Press books, but my largest non-Kelmscott press collection is Roycroft and Elbert Hubbard. I probably have somewhere in the region of 100 Roycroft Press books, and many of them the high-end, the ones printed on Japan vellum, the ones hand-illuminated and signed by the illuminators, and a couple in Kinder bindings, which are also very high quality.

My Kelmscott Press collection of 26 books is augmented by Kelmscott Press ephemera, but it is almost as scarce—scarcer—than Kelmscott Press books, and if you were to go on a site like Alibris or Abe, you would find many hundreds of Kelmscott Press books listed right now, but you’d probably find five or fewer bits of Kelmscott Press ephemera. 

You mentioned that your largest non-Morris collection is of Elbert Hubbard, could you tell us a little more about him?

Yes. Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters.  Strange, but about 50% of the people who hear me mention Elbert Hubbard, think of that other Hubbard of Scientology fame, or they think of him as the man who wrote one of the largest selling books ever, A Message to Garcia.  But I came to Hubbard and Roycroft first as a collector of American Arts & Crafts, especially the Roycroft hammered copper pieces. I still have a large collection of copper, wood furniture, and pottery, but now it is especially books, of which I have perhaps 250 books and pamphlets relating to or published by Hubbard and the Roycrofters, which I specialize in. 

As you perhaps know, Hubbard contends that he met William Morris in London at the Kelmscott Press.  He also says that he saw pages of the Kelmscott Chaucer being printed during his London visit.  I contend that this is one of many made up stories by Hubbard, and wrote about it in my 1999 book Elbert Hubbard: William Morris’s Greatest Imitator, published by Neil Shaver of the Yellow Barn Press.  I might add that my little book, published in an edition of 150 copies, of which 34 copies had laid-in leaves from both Kelmscott and Roycroft books, is now incredibly scarce.  There are no copies of either edition for sale on ABE or Alibris right now, and a copy of the regular edition (originally priced at $69.00) is now on e-Bay for a "buy it now" price of $235.00.

You partially answered this earlier, but why, more generally, do you collect Morris?

I would say, in answer to this question, that “the book beautiful” pleases me. The book, almost as an art object, pleases me a great deal. The black ink, the quality of the paper, the illustrations, and the content, were all important to William Morris, are all important in the production of Kelmscott Press books, and I simply feel that it’s a very pleasant experience to be able to own and handle Kelmscott Press books.

You mentioned already that you collect other categories of books… do you think that there are any unifying themes common to all of these presses you collect, Morris books and the non-Morris books alike?

Well, I would answer it in two ways. If I look at what I have and what I collect beyond the presses I mentioned, I also collect signed modern first editions, of which I have probably a thousand, I collect signed and unsigned biblio-mysteries, I have a very large collection—two bays—of variant editions of A Christmas Carol by Dickens, I have an overly large collection of books about books … in short I feel I have too many books, and that’s one of the problems with my type of collecting. I’m not focused, I don’t stick to a unified theme, and if I did, I would have a far, far better Morris/Kelmscott Press collection.

But I’m the type of book hunter that likes to hunt, and likes to buy books. And even in the largest bookshops, I can go in and generally—I mean I’m talking about bookshops the size of Powell’s, which is three floors and one city block—I can go in Powell’s every month and go the art section, and go to the “books about books” section, and go to the “William Morris’s poetry” section, and go to the “William Morris’s literature” section, and I can only find a few books I want. I need to feed my addiction as a book hunter, though, so I will find other books, because I already have many of the titles I see. I think I’m doing a public good: I’m helping Powell’s stay open and I’m buying their inventory, but I’m also not specializing, and I wish I had the willpower to only specialize… but I just love buying books.

You could maybe say that the unifying theme is beautiful things, or fantasy/sci-fi… would you say that has any bearing on it?

Sir Basil Blackwell, reading his Kelmscott Chaucer.
Well, it’s surprising; some of the people I collect beyond Morris have a Morris connection. And so you’ll collect a person like Barry Moser, a very, very good American woodcut artist. And because I collected him and admired his work, I ended up doing a book with him, called Men of Printing.  So sometimes an outside interest in book collecting, outside just the pure range of William Morris, can lead you to other things. In one case, it led me to a really unusual connection.

I found myself in the literature section, and in looking for William Morris I kept finding this guy called “Willie Morris.” Then I thought, “well this is kind of interesting, let’s read some of this man’s work.” He’s an absolutely fabulous writer, he died in 1999, but he was the youngest editor of Harper’s Magazine, and he was a Rhodes scholar. Through reading him and buying his books, I met him and I helped get one of his books published, called My Two OxfordsSo sometimes Morris can lead you astray, but with interesting results.

You’ve been asked this before, but perhaps your answer changes over time—can you highlight three favorite items from your collection as it stands today?

In my answer to that question earlier, I listed the things that I felt were my very best, best items.  (To see his previous answer, see this interview at the University of Puget Sound

But I will add, that since I was asked that question earlier, I added The Collected Works of William Morris in 24 volumes, which is an expensive book printed by Longmans 1910-1915, and it’s very costly just to have it shipped to you, at 24 volumes. So it was my big buy of this past year, and I’m very happy to have it, because it’s a wonderful collection with introductions by Morris’s daughter.

Alongside books, you also collect catalogues from book dealers. What do you like most about collecting these documents?

I started collecting dealer’s catalogues because I had an accumulation of probably five to six hundred catalogues that I had received over the years, and I needed to do some weeding. And in the process of doing the weeding, I decided, well before I give them away—and I gave the catalogue collection to the state library of Oregon, which had a large collection of catalogues already—before I give this all away, I want to check to see if these catalogues have anything really unusual relating to William Morris. So what I started doing was looking for dealer’s catalogues that listed inscribed Kelmscott Press books; or association copies; or William Morris publications, not Kelmscott, but his works, his literature, inscribed.

I started saving those catalogues, and I now have—and its not a large collection—in numbers of catalogues, its probably less than 200 but it’s a nice reference tool and I have it in order, the first set of six boxes is labeled “Kelmscott Press, inscribed,” and the next batch is “non-Kelmscott books inscribed,” and the next batch is catalogues that list “Morris letters and manuscripts” and its very accessible, because the Kelmscott Press catalogues are arranged by the publication number and date, so if I buy, as I did a couple years ago, an inscribed Kelmscott Press book, I’ve been able to go to those catalogues, and the book I bought, the inscribed copy of Tennyson’s Maud, I was able to find it being listed 75 years ago for a song. And that’s what’s also fun about looking at these catalogues, because—fun or depressing—but a book that might be $6000 now was $60 then.

As a bibliophile who worked first for the Oxford institution Blackwell’s Bookshop, and then at the famous online purveyor of books, Alibris, you seem very well positioned to speak about the recent changes in the book market. So I was wondering how do you feel about these changes, and the future of books and book collecting?

The book is dead? As I walked up and down the aisles of my flight out from Portland to Boston, I was able to see an equal number of people reading paperbound or hardbound books as there were people on ebooks or ereaders. The difference was that the people over 35 were generally reading “real books,” and the people under thirty were universally reading nooks and crannies and stuff. But I think there’s a great future for the hardbound book, but it’s going to change the numbers that are printed, and it’s going to change the price model of the book.

A good scholarly book might have had, at one point, 1000 copies printed on the first press run, and that press run can now easily be done for 300 or 400 or 500. They may print more than that, but they won’t bind more than that, they’ll wait to see how publication goes. The blockbusters, the major authors, the Larry McMurtrys, the Anne Tylers, will always sell their ten to twenty thousand or more books, but I feel that what is really changing in the book world is the availability of the out-of-print, scarce and hard to find book, and the pricing model for those books.

It used to be that any bookseller was living in a vacuum. He was a bookseller in Portland, and he had his Portland market, and he bought in a book at x, and he sold that book at x plus. And he pretty much said to himself, “what do I think it’s worth?” or “I’ll look it up in book auction records,” and that’s already two years old, and “I’ll see what, if any copies sold, what it last went for.” But even a scarce or nicely produced book, he was pretty much free to price the way that he wanted to price it. Nowadays the Internet and the two big sellers, Alibris and Abe, with their millions of listings, are changing, absolutely changing, how books are being priced.

The inexpensive books, the books under $100, the books under $500, the books under $300, are being driven down, because everybody checks to see, “well, what’s the lowest price?” And if someone has it at $400 and someone has it at $100, and I bought it for $10, what am I going to price it at, I’ll price it at $90 or $95 and no postage, and so I’ll get the sale, and the top-tier price and dealer is often not going to sell his copy for a long time, if ever.

And the Internet also doesn’t give, sometimes, an accurate description of the condition of the book, so people are buying sight unseen. I think that life will get harder for a big box used bookstore. I think life will get harder for them. But I think the book will always be a collectible item. There will always be people who will form some love, whether it’s The Hobbit by Tolkien, whether it’s JK Rowling’s—whatever it is, there’ll be that sense of collectability in books. People will want them.

This is going to be my book collector question: What might one version of your ideal book look like? Take us through its qualities, from the cover through the illustrations and the type. Then, I’d like to know what team of collaborators you might like to see creating this book, down to the author.

OK let’s answer this by asking a question of my interviewer. Can this be a book by an author dead, or does it have to be by a living author?

Yes, all the collaborators can be dead.

Ok actually we’ll leave the binding for last, only because in my structure of what has to happen, you have to start with really good handmade paper, a really good quality paper, the type of quality paper that Morris always looked for. You want a type font that is not too thin, something of the caliber of the Golden type of Morris, or one of Goudy’s better typefaces, but it doesn’t have to be a Morris Golden type, but it has to be a type that has a real structure and integrity, that when you pick up the book, you can actually see it.

You want a jet black, the very blackest ink you can find. You would like a couple really good illustrators, maybe more than one, maybe one like Barry Moser for full-page illustrations, and John DePol for little vignette type illustrations. If I had my choice of author, living or dead, it would have to be William Morris, just because that’s my true love. And I’ve even picked the title: I would like to see this kind of special, modern edition done of News from Nowhere, one of my absolute favorite William Morris books.

The binding: I’d like to see a serviceable, high-end binder, it doesn’t have to be vellum, and vellum is really very impractical in lots of cases, but there are really good trade binders. There is one in Minneapolis called Campell-Logan: Campbell-Logan by the way do a majority of American private press binding today. Presses all over the United States produce the books, and they ship them to Minneapolis, to Campell-Logan, and they get them bound in different styles, with lots of choices of beautiful, beautiful cloths, and they can do a quarter leather binding, they can do slipcases, they can really make a book look gorgeous. They can add spine labels, they can add title labels on the front cover, they do a really great job.

These are the elements, and they’re all available—and actually it’s growing, I mean it’s growing in the sense that the papermakers are growing, it’s growing in the sense that there are a lot of classes being taught on bookmaking in art colleges, and in some community colleges, on the university level. So the chances of your finding, at a book fair for example—an antiquarian book fair—your chances of finding really beautifully modern-made in the last 25 years, press books that are really well executed, are very good.

I have two follow up questions for that, would you want a Morris fabric for the binding, and second, it sounds like you’re saying that there’s a future for books as art-objects… would you say that’s the case?

First of all, Morris cloth, I don’t think it has ever made, even in Morris’s day, a good binding material. For whatever reason, the weave, the cotton, whatever it was, it didn’t hold up well. Morris’s, some of his own books pre-Kelmscott, were bound in Morris cloth, and there was always some fraying, and it didn’t hold up. Marbled paper is another matter, and you can execute really very nice looking binding using marbled papers. The second part of your question was?

Whether the book is an art-object.

To me, a book is an object to use. And art is an object to really look at and hang on a wall. And you could turn that around and say, isn’t a Kelmscott Chaucer too precious to use? …I don’t know! That is a conundrum.

It’s a really hard thing to handle, because there was such a range of Kelmscott press books. In its day, and today. In its day, there were modest Kelmscott Press books being sold for shillings, less than one pound. And today, there are still modest Kelmscott press books that you can buy for under 500 dollars, granted that’s a lot of money, but you can buy them for under 500 dollars. The artist’s book seems to be… it simply to me seems to be… too precious, and maybe too expensive.

And not enough about the book?

Well I recently saw an artist’s book with no printed words except the title page, and it was in a portfolio, and it wasn’t even bound! Now, is this a book? Or is it art, to frame and hang on the wall?

Looking at the detailed catalogues of your collections, it’s clear that you must learn many little-known and wonderful things through the process of collecting these books and compiling your catalogues. Can you think of a particularly surprising moment when you learned something new about one of your own items?

Let me ask you this, does it have to be a William Morris item? Well I just have a very interesting story, because it just happened in the last month.

I also collect A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and because it was Christmas time and I always A Christmas Carol. I wanted to find a special edition to re-read, and so I went to my Arthur Rackham illustrated vellum-bound Christmas Carol signed by Rackham, but I was just looking for a reading copy, with interesting, good type, and suddenly what before me should appear but a very tall, very, very thin book of about 50 pages or so with a beautiful label on the front cover, and it was entitled Hans Christian Anderson’s Visit to Charles Dickens, and I thought, “well, I can’t remember this.” I looked at my price in the back, and found I had bought it over 20 years ago and clearly I had forgotten about it.

I started going through it slowly, and I flipped over to what would be the verso of the title page, and laid in—glued in—was a clearly type written introduction to a dinner speech given by a Danish publisher named Ejnar Munksgaard, and this was a dinner speech in honor of a visitor from Britain to Copenhagen—where as you may remember Hans Christian Anderson lived for a number of years. This two page type written manuscript was signed at the end by Mr. Munksgaard, and he was praising one of Dickens’s English publishers—now this was in the nineteen thirties—but clearly this English publisher was in the audience, and his name was Stanley Unwin.

I thought “wow! I didn’t remember this was in here,” and then I went to the true verso of the title page, and it said edition limited to 200, and it was signed by Ejnar Munksgaard. and I thought “wow this is really unusual.” And then I went to the first blank page, the front flyleaf, and there it was inscribed again, this time to A. Mary Unwin, the wife of this English publisher.

Anyway, sometimes if you have more than 6,000 books, like I do, and you might have a slightly failing memory (or not), sometimes you have so much, and you’ll find things in your own library that absolutely delight you.

And I will add, I have one wonderful Morris story—years ago, from a book seller in New Hampshire called The Colophon Bookshop, I had bought a group of Sydney Cockerell letters, and Cockerell always used a small, almost book page-sized stationary.  I bought a series of seven letters and I thought, “oh, these are so interesting, I’ll stick them in the back of a book relating to Sydney Cockerell.” And I always cover my dust jackets with some form of Demco jacket or maylar jacket, and so under the back dust jacket I had inserted these seven letters, they’re very thin, and I had proceeded to pretty much, for years, forget about them. Then recently, I pulled the book off, and found a very nice surprise—long forgotten!

I pulled another book off recently, and I found a letter from Jane Morris—in the back of a Morris book. So sometimes you have letters, and you think “well, they really do fit with this book,” the Cockerell letters fit with the Cockerell book, the Jane Morris letter fit with this biography of Morris. I have a nice Walter Crane letter or a nice Burne-Jones letter, and I put these in different places, and you hope when you pass away, someone will bother to really look at these things, or someone else is going to make a nice find. Think of how surprised they’ll be to open up a book and have a Morris letter or a Cockerell letter.

So, if Mrs. Havisham decided to give you a lavish present this year of a rare book, what book would you want it to be?

I would want it to be William Morris’s classic work of fiction, News from Nowhere, printed at the Kelmscott Press, on vellum, inscribed by Morris to any one of his friends. It wouldn’t have to be Burne-Jones, I would take any of those, and be happy.

What’s one of the most frustrating collecting experiences you’ve ever had? What’s one of the most exhilarating?

First, the most frustrating. The most frustrating, and it happened time and again, is: you receive a dealer’s catalogue but you unfortunately live on the west coast, so that catalogue that was mailed, in the old days by mail, snail mail, that catalogue was received by the entire east coast and the entire Midwest and the entire rocky mountain area days before they came to me.

One Saturday morning, I was lounging on my couch in Portland Oregon—actually waiting for the mail—and I was reading. And I heard the mail truck pull up and I heard the mail truck pull away, and I went out and I found a dealer’s catalogue. I went to the English literature section, and there was this wonderful signed trade edition, three volumes, of The Earthly Paradise, priced for under $100.

So I leaped, remember its Saturday—I leaped to my feet, and I called the number thinking well its…11:30, 12:30, 1:30it’s 2:30 in New York, I wonder if they even work on Saturday afternoon at 2:30, but they answered the phone. And I said “this is Jack Walsdorf from Portland Oregon, I just got the catalogue and I want to check on an item.” And within less than 30 seconds, the same voice came back and said “sorry sir, that one’s sold.” Now, that is the height of disappointment, and it is doubly the height of disappointment because within 10 years I was able to buy that very same book—that inscribed copy—I was able to buy that same three-volume set for something like $700. So that was my disappointing one.

Oh, I’ll tell you a wonderful good find story. This happened two years ago. My partner and I were in Southern Oregon on vacation. And we were in the McKenzie River Valley, beautiful area, and we were in a riverside cabin, it was lovely, but there ain’t going to be any bookstores around here. So I asked, “where’s the nearest bookstore,” and they said “well, you go back to where you came from, Eugene, or you go the other direction towards eastern Oregon to a place called Sisters, Oregon and there’s a bookshop there.”
Walsdorf and Kay Kramer at the Printery in 2001 making
one ideal book, On Collecting William Morris

So I talked my partner into giving up our cabin for the day, and giving up the porch that is on the river’s edge and the rippling water, because we really needed to go to a used bookstore. So we went to Sisters, Oregon, and fortunately for her, standing side-by-side, was an antique mall, so Marylou went into the antique mall; I went into the bookstore.

I have a routine. I go in and I say, “Where do you have biblio-mysteries? Where do you have mysteries? Where do you have press books? Where do you have Christmas Carol?” and I list all the things I collect.

And I’m all done, and I walk up to the front desk, and I say to the man, “do you know William Morris, the English Arts & Crafts guy?” and he says “yeah,” and I said “do you have any Kelmscott Press books?” And he said, “oh as a matter of fact I just bought one in this past week, I have it right here, I hadn’t priced it yet. I looked it up on the Internet and it was $2300, but if you want to buy it right now, I’ll sell it to you for $1800 dollars.” And I said well, can I see it, and he said sure, and he hands me Morris’s Guenevere, and I said “You know, the only problem is I don’t have a checkbook with me and I don’t have 1800 dollars with me” and he says “oh, I’ll take a credit card!”

Now, the funny thing is, that was a great feeling, OK, and totally unexpected out there in the high desert as they call it. But the funny thing is, in all that time in Portland, some 38 years, with that great Powell’s bookstore, I’ve never bought a Kelmscott Press book from Powell’s and I go to central Oregon and I find one. I guess the moral of the story is, you just never know where you might find a Kelmscott lurking.

And it’s also to abandon your riverside roost, the comforts—

Right, right. It’s worth it!

I’d like to end by asking you what are the overarching reasons, if any, for your own collecting work? Do you feel that collecting is an important service to society?

Oh, really good question. The reasons for collecting, you know, are so many. For me it’s just simply a passion for books. Ever since I was young I have truly read everything put before me. I was one of those people who read all four sides, and top and bottom, of the cereal box, and I devoured the sports page when I was young. And I simply have such a passion for what you can take from books of all kinds. The joy you can get from reading a book at a certain time, on vacation, how a book will take you to that place after you’ve been there.

One of the neatest experiences I’ve had is when I went to Spain: went to Granada and the Alhambra and returned home and read the Washington Irving story about the Alhambra. And its nice to think: I’ve been there, I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and now I can read how a great writer—more than 100 years earlier—has described those arches, and the mosaic, and the beauty of it. And I just think that the passion for books is a passion for all that books can give you. All the knowledge, all the entertainment, and all the pleasure of the stories.

You had a second part to that question…

About collecting being a service to society.

That’s really a good question. Larry McMurtry in one of his books, Cadillac Jack, talks about the collectors and how collections are like clouds. And how if you look at the clouds on a day when you’ve got bright light and you’ve got blue sky but you’ve got the clouds going across, the clouds are there bunched up, and then the wind comes along and it dissipates them and then you look to your right, and they’ve reformed. 

And he compares the collections to those clouds in the sense that, we put the collections together now, we enjoy them, we read them, we organize them, we categorize them, we take care of them. And after we’ve used them, we need to do something more with them, and that more is to give them to libraries, or to sell them so that other people can build collections. But whatever we do with them, whether we give them away, whether we sell them, after they leave us, invariably, we’re going to start over, in some shape or form, to collect again.

Now, I like to think about when I’ve had books with me, what I’ve done with them. I’ve generally used them to write books. An example, a non-Morris example: for years and years I was an avid reader of a major English mystery writer, Julian Symons. At one point I owned over 1200 individual items related to this one writer, in all his forms of writing: mysteries, biographies, short stories, etc. I co-wrote a bibliography on Julian Symons that was published by Oak Knoll. After I was done with the collecting and done with the writing, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to sell these books through a dealer to Indiana University in Bloomington, the Lilly Library.

Now, I like to think I spent many, many thousands of dollars putting this collection together, and many years of hunting, which is all fine, and many hours of reading and writing. And now my book is published and those books could just sit in my home and I wouldn’t do much more with them, or by having them go to a university like Indiana University Bloomington, having them at the Lilly Library, there are going to be people much more scholarly than me, there are going to be people who find the Julian Symons’s collection, and somebody is going to say, “we have that collection, and its accessible to anybody.” It’s a really good feeling to be able to pass it on.

And it wouldn’t exist if you hadn’t consolidated it in that way.

That’s exactly true. It wouldn’t exist in that body of work, in that mass. I found things that the best library didn’t find—magazines and limited edition booklets, and things that were very ephemeral and very personal, I mean hundreds of letters from Julian to me. Now they are accessible, and that’s the beauty. They’re in one place, open to the public, and that’s the beauty.

So as a collector, you fight entropy: you stop everything from scattering.

Right (laughing), I bring it together.

Thank you.


  1. This series of interviews is an excellent project, Clara - well done for devising it. I must say that, as an English admirer of Morris for whom his socialism and utopianism are central, I find the American world of Morrisian book collecting a very curious and unfamiliar phenomenon! Perhaps these two subcultures - political Morrisians and book-collecting Morrisians - constitute what Theodor Adorno would have called (talking about modernism and mass-culture) the "twin halves of an integral freedom to which, however, they do not add up". Morris himself could hold them together, but we've not been able to.

  2. Tony: thank you very much. The general idea behind my interview series is to capture some of the many sides of "Morrisian"-ism, and there are indeed many! Though I do tend to think that we all add up to a type of whole. I enjoy your blog quite alot, so it's good to hear that The Morrisian is on your reading list from time to time.

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  6. Enjoyed your interviews with John J. Walsdorf .He reminds me of a cross of Will Rogers and Mark Twain. Which is so pleasing to the eyes and mind rather then some who are interview try to talk as William F. Buckley, Jr and leave most in the dark ....Which I'm sure John could do ....I have enjoy collecting Roycroft books for many years but not on the high end such as John and other collectors with them deep pockets...when I get lightheaded and my feet come of the ground ,,,my wife fills my pockets full of rocks ... and tells me I have enough books...' but I have a feeling I'll be hunting down one of John's books by Yellow Barn Press rocks or not ... The Morrisian is a great site for all to learn from , I was disappointed when I got my Roycroft book on Morris ...Elbert has a habit to interject him self in to other people writings ...but that just ego I guess ..anyways nice write up and good questions to boot ...John

    1. Thanks so much John, it's truly great to hear that you enjoyed the interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it! I'll pass along your words to John as well. Wishing you the best.

  7. For those who don't already know . . . John J. (Jack) Walsdorf passed away 9 Jul 2017. See the online obituary here: http://youngs.tributes.com/dignitymemorial/obituary/Jack-Joseph-Walsdorf-104979651