Vance Morgan was born in New Jersey and raised in Florida. He obtained a Doctorate in School Psychology and Counseling from the College of William and Mary, and worked as a school psychologist for 38 years. After becoming interested in collecting as a boy, Vance ultimately acquired a collection of over 2,500 signed books. In the following interview, Vance shares with us his collecting story as well as his insights into corresponding with authors and acquiring their signatures.
Books Tell You Why: When did you first become interested in book collecting? How did you get started?
Vance: As a child, well before I discovered book collecting, I was busy laying the groundwork as a collector of traditional childhood interests such as stamps and coins. My father was a banker who had access to bags and bags of coins which he would bring home for me to examine, bag by bag, or roll by roll. This was time-consuming, often tedious work, but I relished these opportunities. It allowed me to engage in private, historical research and provided the opportunity to touch and possess coins of past eras: concrete representations of the events and people of the time. Who knew the travels of the individual coin, the hands in which they were held, the purchases they had made? This constituted a wonderful adventure of the mind. Here, I learned early the importance of a discerning eye, rapid, accurate decision-making, and the benefits of knowledge of your field. I became aware of the importance of condition and rarity. I acquired guide books, discussed coin collecting with local dealers, and attended shows. This early ‘collectors education’ was an important stepping stone to my later development as a book collector.
I was an avid reader as a child and teenager. At 15, I first read To Kill A Mockingbird and was so enamored of the book that I signed my name and dated the entry as a reminder of the first exposure to such a beautifully written story. Notably, the emerging collector in me said that the personal value of this experience made this book worthwhile to hold onto, and I still feature that book with my adolescent signature in a prominent place on one of my many bookcases. This copy happens to be a 7th printing of the first edition; not valuable as a collectible, but valuable for what a book should be first and foremost about, its meaning to the reader.
After college, my interest in reading never waned and, in the late-70s, I became fascinated by the idea of corresponding with some of the authors of the books I was reading. John Cheever, John Updike, Robert Penn Warren, Norman Mailer, Edward Albee and others of this era. At this point, I had begun to buy many of these books rather than borrow them from the library. My father had also been a reader and, while he had passed away, I had many of his books by certain of these authors as well (though, as I later learned, much to my chagrin, they were exclusively book club editions).
So, before my first forays into book collecting, I wrote to many of these authors to pose questions to them regarding elements of their work. I had picked up this idea from others, of course, but it merged nicely with my desire to connect personally with the writers. Many of the writers, despite their busy schedules, were kind enough to respond to my inquiries. I received particularly insightful responses from Robert Penn Warren, Wallace Stegner, William Burroughs, Diane Wakoski and Larry Eigner (this correspondence was truly remarkable; despite his disability, he kindly typed out powerful letters about the past and present state of American poetry that were themselves poetry).
As the ability to establish ongoing correspondence with hard-working writers was not likely to be sustainable, and I still wanted to maintain contact without unduly disrupting their schedules, I began thinking of other ideas. I contemplated sending authors a copy of one of their books and asking them to sign them for me. At first, I proceeded slowly, sending a letter of introduction that spoke of my interest in their work, desire to have a book of theirs sent to them for signature, and willingness to assume shipping costs. Far more often than not, I received affirmative responses.
Now, at this stage, how did I locate the writers? Before the internet there were reference books and among the volumes I used where those that had brief descriptions of author works, often supplemented by the most recent contact address. That address may have been most often a publisher or agent address, but in some cases it was a personal address. The currency of those addresses was always suspect, but in the era of limited resources, it was a matter of moving forward with what you had.
As a side note, later, as the internet became available as a tool, I found a couple of helpful resources that specialized in addresses of ‘celebrities’, and this smoothed the process considerably.
Most often, mailing the book to the writer via the publisher with a request that the book be forwarded led to a positive outcome; there were many times that the book was not only returned signed but with the writer including their home address!
Armed with an affirmative response by a writer, in the early stages of my collecting career, I sent the books in a mailer with a stamped, addressed return mailer and brief reminder letter of the writer’s agreement to sign and return the book. If I was estimating success rates, I would say 95% of the books were returned, signed or inscribed, some with very nice notes from the writer. I sent the mailer with a delivery confirmation that allowed me to track the state of delivery (but certainly did not guarantee forwarding to the author via the publisher; in these cases, I came to trust the publicity departments to come through for me). As my collecting career ‘matured’, I did find that fewer and fewer publisher were willing to forward books, even with the return postage guaranteed (as stated on the mailer).
There were a small percentage of books that never made it to their destination for one reason or another, and this was a risk I absorbed. On the other hand, I was surprised on many occasions by books showing up months after I had sent them; the record was a book received 7 years after its mailing, likely buried away in a corner before again seeing the light of day. I learned never to give up!
I also learned quickly that sending books simply shoved in a mailer with minimal protection often left the books damaged either in transit to or in return from the author. I then made the difficult but necessary decision to hand-create a form-fitted cardboard box/holder for each book. These containers served as such sturdy protection for the book(s) that they easily survived the mailing process and came back to me in the pristine condition in which they were sent. In my cover letter attached to each book, I asked that the book be returned in this box. This was a time-consuming, exacting process but well worth every second of the effort, was received well by the writers, and assured that the ‘value’ of the newly signed book was not diminished by a faltered condition.
As I noted earlier, several of my first efforts proved to be ‘worthless’ per the standards of book collecting as I sent book club editions from the family library. So, one of my first steps was to distinguish between true publisher copies and book club editions, at times a tricky endeavor but ultimately one that I mastered out of necessity. As I worked through this early learning process, I then began to expand my search for books by authors with whom I was familiar but had not necessarily read; ones who were well-known and/or respected in the literary community.
I began to attend local library sales regularly, visit thrift stores, go out of my area to larger sales, and even review the stacks of new books at large box sellers. By this time, central requirements were that each book, with few exceptions, be a first edition copy and that the copy be as fine condition as possible.
At this early point, motivated by interest in literature and connecting with authors, I began to regularly send books to writers, both nationally and internationally, and with the kind responses I received from the vast majority, I had found my niche as a collector. As time went on, I broadened my scope beyond the literary to include autobiographies, histories, and other nonfiction topics. The collection began to expand so that over the 30 years of collecting I had acquired 2,500 signed books. My small house had become a repository for a very remarkable collection.
Books Tell You Why: Could you describe your collection? What are its notable attributes?
Vance: The impetus for collecting was literary so that 95% of my collection is signed and/or inscribed fiction including novels, short story collections, plays, and poetry. I never requested that authors specifically sign versus inscribe books, instead leaving that option open. I felt they were doing me such a large favor that to ask for a specific type of response was presumptuous. While there are certainly opinions from a collecting perspective of the ‘value’ of a signed versus inscribed book, as a collector who was motivated by interest in connecting with authors rather than enhancing value, I was just as happy to receive an inscribed sentiment as a simple signature. Many of the writers would sign the books and include a brief attached hand-written note. That was an exciting moment for me, the opening of a mailer and finding such a note; again, it was a testament to the beauty of connecting.
I also established an important rule early that I strongly believe encouraged writers to accept me as a genuinely interested party, not merely one attempting to take advantage of their largesse: I always wrote a thank you post card to each writer that sincerely expressed my appreciation and mentioned the specific book. I wished them the best in their ongoing work, and noted that I hoped to connect with them again in the future.
I branched out over time to autobiographies or other nonfiction written by notable individuals in politics, sports, entertainment, and medicine. I was thrilled to obtain several copies of books signed by the Dalai Lama through international correspondence. Dr. Jack Kevorkian was kind enough to sign his seminal book on assisted suicide. President Gerald Ford signed copies of the Warren Commission volumes summarizing the examination of the Kennedy assassination. Yoko Ono signed a book of writings by John Lennon. Each book was a privileged connection with history.
Books Tell You Why: Have you built relationships with any of the authors you collect?
Vance: The poet Larry Eigner was a remarkable correspondent. I had discovered his poetry while visiting a book store in New York City. I was struck by the power of his poetry in simple language. But it was his story that was most remarkable, that of a man who composed poetry while struggling with the disabling effects of severe cerebral palsy. As a psychologist, I was amazed by his accomplishments and wrote him, initially through a publisher, to tell him so. I also inquired as to his views on poetry, his experiences as a poet, and other issues. That began a correspondence that lasted a year where he typed with occasional hand-written corrections a series of letters that were detailed, insightful, and beautifully composed responses to my inquiries. He opened my eyes to the state of modern poetry and helped me understand its roots. These letters now reside in an institutional collection.
Books Tell You Why: What was your most memorable acquisition?
Vance: Of the many books that I obtained from my family library was a two-volume edition of the Warren Commission report on the assassination of President Kennedy. As I was reviewing the set, I noticed that Gerald Ford was one of the members of the commission. At that time, President Ford had retired to a home in Rancho Mirage. I previously requested that he sign a couple of other of his books and he had kindly agreed to do so. While he had not written this report, he was an essential member. This appeared a wonderful opportunity to again add an item to my collection that would represent a connection with history.
After having sent the books, I waited nervously, not knowing if he would agree in this case as he had not authored the volumes. But, within weeks, the books were returned signed, each having enclosed a type-written and hand-signed card attesting to President Ford’s belief that the report represented an accurate description of the events surrounding the assassination. I admired President Ford as a man and politician, and this response simply enhanced my respect.
Books Tell You Why: What is your favorite book in your collection? What makes it special?
Vance: There are so many books in my collection that have personal meaning. Some because of the rarity of the signature (Me by Katherine Hepburn); some because of the good fortune in locating an individual through research (Dog Years by Gunter Grass); some because of the luck in finding the book among rows and rows of common books at a book sale (RN slip-cased and signed by President Nixon); and, some because I identified the writer at the outset of their career (Killing Floor by Lee Child).
But, two stand out among the rest: the first, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Here was a writer of savage brilliance who had composed a modern classic. I had the privilege of recognizing his talent at the start of his career, and of his agreeing to sign both the hardcover and advance edition copies. This powerful book will remain one of the foundations of my collection, and of modern American literature. His death was a tremendous loss to the American literary scene.
The second is Flags of our Fathers by James Bradley. My father was a WW II veteran whom experienced tremendous hardship in the South Pacific; however, he was reticent to breach the topic. Based upon his experience, I developed an interest in WW II history and had obtained a couple of copies of Flags of our Fathers. There came the time that Clint Eastwood directed the powerful, poignant film version of this book and I resolved that I would ask both the author and film director if they would sign my copies. I was fortunate to receive affirmative responses from both Mr. Bradley and Mr. Eastwood and first sent the books to Mr. Bradley for signature and next to Mr. Eastwood. These wonderful gentleman both responded and, in receiving these books, I had special volumes that crossed into both the historical and entertainment fields, and represented a gift of sorts to the memory of my father.
Books Tell You Why: How do you choose and pursue books for your collection?
Vance: At the beginning of my collecting career, I chose books of individual authors rather randomly, not paying particular attention to the ordinal position of the book in the writer’s canon. Over time, I realized that I was by-passing the issue of desirability and rarity and began to focus my attention on finding books that dated from early in the writer’s career. Thus, with renewed focus, I was able to increase the desirability, durability and value of my collection. This also required me to branch off from my traditional sources of book sales and thrift shops (though these remained my favorite outings) to purchasing books through dealers. While requiring more financial investment, I was increasing the importance and value of my collection, justifying the additional expense.
Eventually, the priorities for choosing a book that I might eventually send to an author became place order in their publication history tempered by condition (fine/fine if available) and rarity (the writer’s first book may not always be the hardest to obtain).
Vance: It is a well-known rule among family members and friends that the books in the collection are off-limits for reading. As much as I have protected each book with a mylar cover for the dust jacket, and kept each neatly shelved, I fear the accidental mishandling of the book, or the inadvertent wear that results from the simple act of turning pages, will potentially reduce its value. My collector’s instinct would be to keep each in a locked, glass-paneled shelving unit so that each could be seen but not touched! Aside from the issue of discouraging reading of the books is the lengths I went in one room to protect the exposed spines from sun fading; in addition to having blinds in the room, I constructed a device that held a thick black plastic sheeting over the shelves so that the sun’s rays literally could not penetrate to the spines. My goal was always to maintain the books in as pristine a condition as possible, and I took great effort in doing so.
Books Tell You Why: What advice do you have for novice book collectors?
Vance: While I ultimately built a remarkably eclectic collection, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that aspiring book collectors began with such a lofty goal. Instead, I believe the surest way to establish a foothold is to start with a specific category of collecting--be it Southern writers, modern poetry, Pulitzer prize winners, etc.--where you can gain a level of expertise and experience. There is much to learn in the formation of a collection and initially narrowing your focus will allow you to determine if book collecting makes sense for you, while leading you on a rewarding path of discovery. Whatever you motivation is for book collecting, hopefully you will begin and end with a love of books, and appreciate the hunt that all book collectors cherish.
Many thanks to Vance for sharing with us such a remarkable collecting story. Please feel free to leave any thoughts and feedback for him in the comments section below!