Collectors in the Burgh
    Marshall Cohen

    Marshall Cohen

    When I was 11 years old, Mabel Uren, the librarian at Liberty Elementary School in Shadyside, gave me a book she thought I might like to read. Prior to this, my “outside” reading had been confined to the backs of cereal boxes and to, of course, comic books.

    The book was about spelunking—cave exploring. And while I never became a spelunker, I did become a reader. I am forever grateful to Mrs. Uren for setting me on that path.

    Some six decades later, I seem to have not only been reading voraciously, but just as voraciously collecting the books I read.

    And that has been the starting principle of my book collection: I really want to read everything I acquire. My reading interests, which are admittedly broad, guide my acquisitions. This is the method to my bibliophilic madness. Purist book collectors may well shudder at that. My collection is, I believe, a good one, but it is also a read one.

    1776-books

    I don’t read 17th-century illustrated manuscripts; therefore I don’t collect them. And they really belong in libraries anyway, in my view.

    I have somewhere around 3,500 hardcover first editions, about half of which are signed. The book-collecting world would call them Modern First Editions, though it seems that definition of “modern” is rather expansive and elastic.

    My professional work for the last 50 years has resulted in my living (with my extraordinarily accommodating spouse) in a number of cities where live appearances by authors are frequent (we of course are talking pre-pandemic here).

    mysteries-books

    In addition to live bookstore events, we haunt annual book festivals, from New York and Los Angeles to DC and Miami and elsewhere. Book festivals are magical events, with an extraordinary array of authors, genres, booksellers, and food vendors. I have been able to talk with many authors at these events, and these opportunities have genuinely enhanced my reading enjoyment.

    In fact, my love of book festivals has led me to undertake an effort to create an annual, free (that’s important) Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books (to be held, pandemic allowing, this fall in East Liberty or thereabouts). Pittsburgh does not have such an event; it should. We already have strong civic and literary support for this book festival, starting with Mayor Peduto, and initial sponsorships from Google Pittsburgh, Duolingo, Bakery Square, the University of Pittsburgh University Library System, and Pittsburgh author Richard Snodgrass. Stay tuned for more on that. (Better yet, help out—sponsor, donate, volunteer, via pittsburghbookfestival.org)

    When overseas we visit the great and historic bookstores of London and Paris for their author events. In Pittsburgh our delightful independent bookstores often have had, and will have again, terrific authors visit, read, discuss, and sign.

    I could cite many examples of such enjoyable interactions, but I cherish two in particular. I conversed several times with George Plimpton on Fifth Avenue in New York at the now sadly gone NY is Book Country celebration, which was held for about 20 years, until the 9/11 tragedy of 2001. And I met JFK advisor and speechwriter Ted Sorenson when his book Counselor came out, and had it signed. That was living history.

    gospel-books

    Mine is in many ways a collection of collections: I have close to all the published books of a number of “modern”-day authors, in a variety of genres: fiction, mystery, sci-fi, history, travel, etc. In some cases that’s over 25 books of a single author. In these mini-collections, a great many have been signed. All have been read. As I said, the purpose is to read and enjoy and learn. The byproduct is 3,500 books all over your house.

    The two biggest challenges are maintaining a good database of the collection—which I currently lack, although I do have a plan for that—and having sufficient bookshelves. Then again, one can never have enough bookshelves.

    I am delighted when I visit someone and see filled bookshelves in their home. I immediately step over to see what’s there. For our part, we have left a trail of built-in bookcases throughout the country in the houses we bought.

    So on to the collection; here are just a few of my personal favorites.

    Winston Churchill’s Second World War, “Chartwell Edition”—first series with photos and illustrations.

    High Adventure by Edmund Hilary (first to ascend Mt. Everest), first edition, signed.

    A Christmas Story, signed by Truman Capote.

    Mysteries of Pittsburgh, signed and inscribed to me by Michael Chabon.

    Signed first editions of all four of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run series.

    First editions of The Godfather, Exodus, Killer Angels, Franny and Zooey, Catch 22, Cannery Row, and Sweet Thursday; plus a number of other Capotes, Ray Bradburys, John LeCarres, Elmore Leonards, and Norman Mailers—many signed.

    A signed first edition of Ann Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, and most of her other books.

    Large collections—including many signed firsts—of works by Lee Child, Alan First, Phillip Kerr, Charles McCarry, Carl Hiaason, Neal Stephenson, Michael Chabon, Michael Connelly, Paul Theroux, Chris Buckley, Robert Littell, Robert Parker, T. C. Boyle, Thomas Perry … the list seems endless.

    People sometimes ask me what my favorite book is. I have 3,500 favorite books.

    They are all around me, stress reducing, enjoyable, and beckoning to me over and over again. And new ones seem to show up constantly—which explains why I am always behind in my reading.

    So I will keep reading, and thus collecting.