The Jorge Luis Borges Collection at the University of Virginia attracts scholars from across the globe who are interested in examining one—or many—of the more than 2000 titles in its holdings. In fact, UVA's Borges collection is the most comprehensive in the world. We were lucky enough to conduct an interview with Jared Loewenstein, who began developing the collection in 1977.
Jared Loewenstein: I had been a fan of Borges’s writings while a graduate student at UVA in the 1960s. I subsequently became a faculty librarian here, with responsibility for building the Spanish-language collections, particularly in literature (all my degrees were in Hispanic Literature). In early 1977, I was contacted by an antiquarian bookseller in Buenos Aires whom I knew; he described an amazing group of Borges materials he had acquired and which was for sale. Knowing of my interest on behalf of the Library, he discussed terms with me, and ultimately we purchased the group. After examining the roughly 400 titles, including almost all of Borges’s rare first editions and a number of significant early critical works on Borges, I realized that UVA had managed to obtain what was already perhaps the most comprehensive assemblage of Borges materials anywhere. It was clear to me that we had to continue to acquire additional titles to fill in the gaps; a deep understanding of any author is at least partly acquired through reading closely as many of his/her texts as possible. Borges’s writing career spanned a full six decades, so I knew there would be a challenge ahead. Fortunately, then-University Librarian Ray W. Frantz, Jr. was able to help find funding for that challenge! I should add that we felt from the beginning that Borges was important to us not only in support of our nationally excellent Spanish literature program here, but also as a natural extension of our outstanding (North) American literature collections, Borges having influenced, and been influenced by, several American authors.
Books Tell You Why: Can you talk a little bit about meeting Borges and talking with him about the collection? I recall you told some fascinating anecdotes about taking Borges to Monticello, for instance.
Jared Loewenstein: I first met him in 1967 when he came to UVA to lecture on Edgar Allan Poe, whose work he loved. When I heard Borges speak, I was hooked. During his brief visit, he was taken to Monticello for a private guided tour, during which he was allowed to touch objects which his blindness would not permit him to see, and for which he received lengthy explanations by the curator. Afterwards, he remarked on the curator’s “...lovely tie; such a beautiful yellow hue.” Because the curator was momentarily nonplussed about Borges’s apparent visual acuity, Borges then confessed laughingly that he still could discern vaguely a little yellow, and a vertical yellow stripe with a voice above it simply had to be a tie!
At that time, we had not begun to collect Borges; that came about beginning ten years later.
Books Tell You Why: Have a majority of the books in the collection come from South America?
Jared Loewenstein: Yes, that’s the case. Of course, Borges’s texts have been translated widely, and we have always strived to collect those translations as well. Naturally, a Swedish translation, for example, would be published in, say, Stockholm. But mostly, the materials we’ve bought have indeed been from South America, and probably most frequently from antiquarian sources in Argentina.
Jared Loewenstein: It’s a good deal easier now than it used to be when I started. Everything from better communications to better overseas business practices is involved. Time delays are much less significant as well. I think that American collectors have learned a lot about foreign book markets, and those suppliers have become much more aware of buying preferences in this country. So the antiquarian book business has flourished more widely geographically than ever before. It’s a great thing!
Books Tell You Why: Can you discuss a couple of the rarest books/objects in the collection?
Jared Loewenstein: The rarest things are of course any of the manuscripts, which are by definition one-of-a-kind. Some of the manuscripts are actually illustrated by Borges as well, despite his increasing blindness. Almost none of these pen-and-ink drawings were previously known, and very few have been published to date. We also have the only, or nearly only, copy of several extremely rare printed items, including both books and magazine appearances. For example, it took me fifteen years to locate the only existing copy of the second issue of a so-called “mural magazine” (a single-sheet, poster type of journal) called PRISMA and edited by Borges himself; it was printed in early 1922, and this second issue was the last published. Borges signed the sheet as well. It turned up in an attic in Montevideo, Uruguay, across the river from Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Books Tell You Why: What are some of the most unique or unexpected books/objects in the collection?
Jared Loewenstein: We have a book (a Spanish translation of Aulus Gellius’s NOCTES ATTICAE) from Borges’s personal library that contains on its flyleaves Borges’s handwritten notes for a piece that was never completed or published. Another item of special interest is Borges’s SIETE POEMAS SAJONES/SEVEN SAXON POEMS, printed in a very elaborate limited edition. It features a binding with three gold-plated bronze plaques sculpted by noted Italian artist Arnaldo Pomodoro; each copy of the book was signed by Pomodoro and Borges and placed in a linen-covered wooden box with an acid-etched brass cover plate. Quite a production!
Books Tell You Why: When researchers visit the collection, what are some of the items they're most interested to see?
Jared Loewenstein: Generally, it’s the rarest items that are the most frequently sought out. Manuscripts are of course a major draw, but the scarcer printed titles are also of great interest to researchers because of their availability here.
Jared Loewenstein: Online buying provides several advantages, including speed and ease of communication between seller and buyer. More importantly, the internet allows sellers to offer much better information to potential buyers. Such things as detailed images and full descriptions of items are extremely helpful when making purchase decisions, especially in the antiquarian market. Internet business is often less expensive for dealers and certainly easier in many respects than the old paper-files-and-snail-mail days were. For both institutional and private collections, of course, all methods are used if they lead to the acquisition of additional materials in a particular area. We have always tried to cultivate and maintain good working relationships with our dealer sources, no matter what sort of business model (online or not) they may prefer using. I am sure that UVA will continue to work with dealers of all types, and I think that we are today exposed to more opportunities than ever to learn of items in which we may have an interest.
Books Tell You Why: Are you still adding to the collection for UVA? How do you see the collection growing or changing in the years to come?
Jared Loewenstein: I retired from the UVA Library in the summer of 2011, after a total of 50 years there, including 40 years as a member of the faculty. Since then my role has been an advisory one, including recommending purchases and assisting researchers using the Borges Collection when called upon by Library staff.
I think that the Collection will continue to grow as desirable candidates for purchase are discovered and as funds permit. The greatest need, however, is for a strong supporter or supporters to come forward to provide a secure endowment for future acquisitions. We have the most comprehensive assemblage of Borges material, especially the rare manuscripts and first editions of his works, which exists anywhere. We are also a very important site for visitors to the Collection, including international ones. A stable financial source of funding to continue to underwrite our strong academic interest in Borges would be of immense benefit to an increasing community of Borges scholars here and around the world.
Books Tell You Why: Do you have any advice for Borges collectors?
Jared Loewenstein: A couple of things occur to me. First, I have personally encountered a number of Borges titles with inauthentic signatures and/or inscriptions. These have been marketed as genuine at inflated prices. Collectors need to be careful to research their purchases beforehand, and to work with dealers who will guarantee returns of unwanted purchases. Second, obviously manuscripts and other unique or extremely rare printed items are now very expensive, but even somewhat more available Borges titles/editions are today tending to fetch much higher prices than they did when I first began collecting for the Library. So it’s a good idea to be prepared for a little “sticker shock”!