I love to read. I love books and bookstores and reading and writing and that feeling of cracking the unbroken spine of a hardback for the first time. I even write a regular column of book reviews for the News (mind the shameless self-promotion). But I’m writing today about one aspect of book culture at Yale that strikes me as just a little weird: the Adrian Van Sinderen Book Collecting Prize.
My former suitemate, Matthew Glover ’15, first called my attention to the prize earlier this year, after he noticed a flyer for it hanging outside the Branford Dining Hall. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that I should write a column about it. “It’s like them having a prize for the person with the best Emporium DNA wardrobe,” he told me.
To be fair, the prize presents itself as, continuing with that metaphor, more for the person with the best overall wardrobe, particular brands aside. But I think the larger point is well taken: It takes money to win the Van Sinderen Prize.
According to the prize’s website, it was established in 1957 “to encourage undergraduates to collect books, build their own libraries and read for pleasure and education.” $1,000 is given to the winning senior, while $700 is given to the winning sophomore. The website claims that the prize rewards “neither the number of books nor their monetary value,” but rather the “discrimination and judgment in the selection of titles related to the contestant’s interest.”
This prize would be a lot more problematic if it did indeed reward the value and quantity of books. Instead, it claims to reward some sort of subjective thematic unity. But it still takes money to build up a private library. And then there are the specific criteria.
“Rare editions and fine bindings, though desirable luxuries, will receive equal but not extra consideration,” the prize’s website claims. Right off the bat, then, students with the income to spare for rare or fancy books are at an advantage, as these things merit some consideration. Indeed, one of the past winning collections, according to the website, includes first editions of William Burroughs’s books, a collection it surely took means to acquire. Students without enough money must build collections that merit consideration for other reasons.
The website continues, “Paperbacks are acceptable if there is evidence of some worthwhile thought and purpose.” That sounds to me as if hardbacks are the expectation, while paperbacks need to meet someone’s definition of “worthwhile” in order to qualify.
Finally, “collections of books acquired solely for courses are not acceptable.” In other words, students should “build their own libraries,” but these can’t just be books they bought for class.
It seems to me that if the prize did not want to give a huge advantage to kids with money, it would not give any weight to the rarity or quality of the books, it would not privilege hardbacks over paperbacks and it would not mandate that collections be extracurricular. These rules seem irrelevant to the “overall purpose of the competition,” which, according to the website, is “to encourage students to build collections characterized by unity of field or subject.” Why not reward collections “characterized by unity of field or subject,” even if this includes substantial numbers of paperbacks and books that are bought for class? I study the history of venereal disease, and, over the course of my time at Yale, I have acquired many books on this rather esoteric topic; why can’t these count as a worthwhile collection, even though many of these were purchased for class? Why on earth is any consideration given for the edition or binding, if the purpose is just to build up a collection and inspire a love of reading? The prize is giving away thousands of dollars using what strike me as subtly discriminatory rules.
I don’t mean to pick on the Van Sinderen Prize, per se. But a discussion of the prize allows us to discuss donations to Yale more broadly. If Adrian Van Sinderen, class of 1910, just wanted to stimulate reading, surely the money he used to establish this prize should have gone to the library or for students on financial aid to be able to buy their own books.
In other words, I believe this money could have been better spent. Obviously, it wasn’t mine to spend, but Yale administrators should actively encourage donors to give to more worthwhile causes within the University. Money is better spent helping with cancer research than rewarding a student with the best collection of private cancer research equipment, right?
And in the meantime, the Van Sinderen Prize should change its rules to ensure that no advantage at all is given to students based on wealth.
Scott Stern is a senior in Branford College. His columns run on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.