Prize honors literature lovers

Elizabeth Palazzolo’s ’11 dorm room was a little crowded Tuesday afternoon. A group of adults filed inside, squeezing around the Saybrook College sophomore’s bookshelf.

But when the conversation turned to the shelf’s contents, Palazzolo said, everyone was more at ease. Her guests were there to judge her collection of books on classical civilization, history and literature — a contender for and ultimately an honorable mention recipient of Yale’s Adrian Van Sinderen Book Collecting Prize.

“I was thrilled that part of the process was actually looking at the books,” Palazzolo said.

Over the course of the school year, nearly every Yalie acquires something of a miniature library — ancient philosophical treatises atop an Ikea bookshelf, economics textbooks leaning on a wooden mantelpiece, Russian literature piled in the corner of a dorm room. But for some students, book collecting is a more deliberate enterprise: They frequent used book stores or bargain online in pursuit of particular volumes.

And it is precisely these conscientious bibliophiles that the Adrian Van Sinderen prize seeks to reward. Collections from this year’s prize winners, who were announced Wednesday, included art books, books on tea and coffee culture and poetry from modern Kurdistan.

The prize’s namesake, Adrian Van Sinderen 1910, collected books “in grand style,” said Stephen Parks ’61, the chair of the prize’s judging committee and a self-professed lifelong book collector. Hoping to encourage undergraduate book collecting, in 1957 Van Sinderen established the prize, which has since served as a model for collegiate book collecting contests nationwide, explained Parks, who was a judge for the prize as an undergraduate and returned to the post as an alumnus in the 1970s.

Each year the prize is generally awarded to one senior and one sophomore, who receive $1,000 and $700 in prize money, respectively. This year the senior winner was Jessica Svendsen ’09, and the sophomore winner was George Bogden ’11. Rebecca Dinerstein ’09 was awarded second place for the senior prize, and Wookie Kim ’09 and Palazzolo received honorable mentions for their respective classes. Dinerstein, Kim and Palazzolo also received cash prizes for their collections.

The students were rewarded, above all, for the thoughtfulness and coherence of their collections, said Bill Reese ’77, a member of the judging committee.

“The most important thing to know about the prize is that it really has nothing to do with necessarily having rare or valuable books,” he said. The judges look for collections united by a particular genre, subject matter or author, explained Reese, who won the prize as both a sophomore and a senior and is now a rare book and manuscript dealer based in New Haven.

Though they achieve this unity individually, as a group, the winning collections vary vastly in both content and form, Reese said.

Palazzolo’s roughly 80-book collection is wide in chronological and thematic scope — the result of more than a dozen years of perusing bookstores, she said.

In contrast, of the two collections Svendsen submitted, about 40 or 50 books in total, the first focused on graphic design and typography and the second on the work of contemporary artist Kara Walker. Svendsen said she sees the books as art objects, but she also uses them as inspiration for her own endeavors in graphic design.

Though some of the winners said they consider themselves longtime collectors and bibliophiles, others simply said their collections emerged from their love of reading.

“I don’t know if I’ve thrown a book away,” said Bogden, who said he has “always” collected books. His collection of Kurdish poetry was four years in the making, he said.

Kim, who is originally from Korea and has lived in Hong Kong, China and Japan, said he has long held an interest in tea because of his background, and he more recently also became interested in the coffeehouse culture of early modern England. But the goal of submitting a collection to the Adrian Van Sinderen prize, he said, motivated him to develop his interest into a roughly 20-book collection on tea and coffee culture.

“I probably wouldn’t have had the idea to start this collection if I hadn’t heard about the prize,” he said.

Dinerstein said she did not see herself as a book collector, per se, before entering the contest. But during two recent summers spent in Ireland, she began a collection of Irish poetry — volumes she picked up in local bookstores or received from Irish poets she met as part of a fellowship during one of those summers.

This year’s five winners were selected from a pool that began with nearly 30 entrants and was narrowed down to nine final contenders based on essays the entrants wrote about their collections, Parks explained. On Tuesday, the eight-member judging committee — including, among others, staff members from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Yale Center for British Art, a School of Medicine professor and, as the prize rules stipulate, one undergraduate member of the Elizabethan Club — walked around campus to review the collections and interview the candidates before making their decision Tuesday evening.

Spencer Gray ’09, the undergraduate judge, noted that if a student’s collection is not physically located on campus, a list of the books in the collection and accompanying photographs are acceptable. However, the prize rules specify that collections acquired solely for academic courses are not acceptable.

And despite the growing prevalence of digital archives in the world of libraries and bookkeeping — and the rise of electronic book forms, such as the Amazon Kindle — judges and winners alike insisted the traditional book has a unique appeal and is here to stay.

“Primary sources are really, really vital,” said Basie Gitlin ’10, an avid book collector who won the Adrian Van Sinderen prize last year. “I think there’s always going to be a place for the material object.


  • '09

    Kurdish poetry is so exciting!

  • Huh?

    It seems kind of awkward this is done based on a physical or ownership model. That seems to bias this, does it not? I would love to buy some of the books I see when I'm perusing through old book stores, though I can only window-shop

  • KathrynO

    Yay Jessica!

  • Recent Alum

    Amazing how leftists like #2 can turn an interesting, completely non-political article into an opportunity to make a political point that doesn't even apply. The article specifically said that the contest is not about acquiring expensive or unique books.

    Congratulations to this year's winners; this is a great contest and more Yalies should participate.

  • y09

    #4: #2 isn't trying to make a political statement. It's just unfortunate that in our society, one who has the means to afford these books is more likely to buy them. They may say quality is better than quantity but both you and i know that's not true. Ask any of the winners how many books they have and how much they spent on the collection. Doubt someone on financial aid could do the same.

  • Gaius Lucilius ('10)

    While I appreciate where you're coming from, #4, it does seem rather odd that the prize is monetary. Why not more books, instead? It's like paying someone because they have the best jewelry collection. With a lot of money and a little training, anyone can be a connoisseur. _Writing_ books, on the other hand… now there's the hard part truly deserving of a prize…
    Even a paperback these days is nearly $20, so it's not like a poor student is in the best position to build up a collection of rare festshrifts and first-edition beat poetry. Especially in this economy…

  • Poor College Student, Enthusiastic Bargain Hunter

    On behalf of one of the winners who would like to remain anonymous given the nature of the comments, I would like to point out that this person is actually both on Yale financial aid and has outside scholarships, works two student jobs during the term, and has purchased the vast majority of his/her books second-hand. In fact, this person specifically discussed in her interview with the judges (and in the interview for this article), that he/she purchases books when he/she finds them for low prices in used bookstores because he/she does not have much money to invest on books. Even people who do not have a lot of extra money can make choices about where to spend the money they do have, and in this case the individual chooses to invest what money he/she makes on something that matters to him/her: purchasing books in a field of interest. The prize does not reward having tons of money to spend on expensive books, but investing time and effort to find books and choosing well among the books that one can afford. In fact, the literature provided by the prize competition specifically notes that a main consideration is care given to the selection of books, not the value or number of volumes. One can easily spend hundreds of dollars indiscriminately and still not have as well-developed a collection as someone who carefully searches out copies of interesting books at bargain prices.

  • @#7

    Well said!

  • Remembering Yale's History

    One of Yale's great collectors - Donald Gallup -was the former curator of the American Collection at the Beinecke. As an undergraduate at Yale he had absolutely no financial resources. He worked and scrimped for every penny, waiting tables in Yale's dining halls and husbanding his resources every way he could. In free time he haunted second hand bookstores. During the war, when he had leave, he haunted bookshops in England. Through these means he acquired a stunning collection. T.S. Eliot was amazed that Gallup had books and little magazines with poems and essays Eliot himself barely remembered he had written. The point here is that Gallup started with NO money; only a love for books. He made his priority buying books -as I am sure at least a few of those among the 30 young book collectors have done. (No ipod, a book instead.) The prize does not reward value or quantity, but thoughtful collecting - the kind Gallup did. His collection, when he started it, was worth nothing., It became valuable over time, and through the thoughtfulness of his own collecting. Has #2 made book buying the kind of priority Gallup did when he haunted bookshops as a penurious undergraduate?