Off the Clock: Roger Lathbury’s Book Collection Keeps Turning Pages

Posted: January 6, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

By day, he’s a professor of literature, lecturing on the romanticism of F. Scott Fitzgerald or the fine points of professional editing. But at night, Roger Lathbury peruses used book stores, surfs the Internet for rare finds, and has been willing to meet dealers in seedy bars—all in the sport of collecting rare books.

Roger Lathbury
Roger Lathbury

Walk into Lathbury’s office and his love of books is immediately apparent. Stacked floor to ceiling are wine crates filled with books—first editions, second editions, and autographed copies. Some are turned upside down for reasons of preservation, and also because, as Lathbury explains, “The titles are harder to read, and therefore the books are less likely to be stolen.”

Lathbury enjoys collecting different versions of a book, noting the way the cover artwork, the size of the book, or the inside illustrations change over time. “I like to be able to read them in the way they were printed. It tells you something about the way the book was received. It’s cultural history, and students enjoy seeing original editions. It tells them about reader expectations.”

One of Lathbury’s favorite acquisitions is a first edition of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Years ago, manuscripts used to be burned after they were printed (publishers thought they had no use for the manuscript after that point), so the first edition of The Scarlet Letter is the closest version to Hawthorne’s original words. “It’s like sharing a kind of intimacy with the author, reading first editions, because you know that’s how the author thought his or her work was presented, and in the case of The Scarlet Letter, later printings are all derivative.”

Roger Lathbury with book collection
Roger Lathbury with some of his many books.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Lathbury also enjoys books with inscriptions. A few years ago, he paid $3,000 for a copy of Fitzgerald’s 1923 play, The Vegetable, which includes an inscription by Fitzgerald to the famous critic H.L. Mencken. In this copy, Fitzgerald imitates Mencken’s writing style and makes a Mencken-like joke. Lathbury also has a copy of W.H. Auden’s The Shield of Achilles dedicated in French to poet Saint-John Perse. It is rare, Lathbury says, because “Auden hated the French. ‘Frog,’ Auden proclaimed, ‘is the language of hell.'” Some of Lathbury’s greatest treasures are copies of books in which the author has made text corrections—a valuable find for a literary scholar.

A self-proclaimed natural collector, Lathbury’s interest in collecting books came right around the time his love for literature started to develop. After reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a “rebellious” teen, Lathbury started buying other D.H. Lawrence books and ended up reading and owning everything he’d ever written. As he grew older and went to a “snobby prep school,” he moved on to other authors—Shakespeare, Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, and Colette—reading all of one author. “I’ve always read that way. I have that get-all-of-it instinct.”

What eludes him still is a book he’s been after for 17 years-a copy of The Great Gatsby, a Modern Library edition, with Fitzgerald’s text corrections in the introduction. Several years ago, while at home, Lathbury received a telephone call from the man who had the book—offering it for $8,000 cash. Lathbury talked him down to $5,000 and agreed to meet him in a few hours. But before he could get his eyes on the book, the deal was called off. “It’s not about the money, or how much the book is worth. It’s to make certain that important books are in the hands of people who care about them and will take care of them,” he says.

One of Lathbury’s newest quests combines two of his collecting passions—books and coins. He’s looking to obtain the gold doubloon featured in Chapters 36 and 99 of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick—a coin that the protagonist Captain Ahab nails to the mast as a reward to the first person to spot Moby Dick. “That coin exists as it is described in the book. I want to be able to show my students that Moby Dick is as real as the coin. I think showing it would make the text jump for the students, come alive.”

Even if he never acquires these items, Lathbury’s true passion lies in the spirit of collecting. And like the obsessed Captain Ahab hunting for the whale, as long as there are books worth collecting in this world, Lathbury will be looking for them.

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