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Three undergraduates who have amassed large literary collections—books on old-time radio, major tomes of Western philosophy and a 1920s-era novel series for boys—won a combined total of $2,500 last week for their ability to bring books together.
Phoebe M.W. Kosman ’05 and Roland O. Lamb ’06 tied for first prize and $1000 each for their respective book collections, and Anna E. Harkey ’04 won $500 for her third prize finish.
Members of Harvard’s second-highest governing board, the Board of Overseers, established the prize in 1976.
The prize’s purpose, according to Librarian for Hilles and Lamont Heather Cole, is not to encourage undergraduates to buy beautiful or expensive books.
“This competition is not about having a lot of good books on your bookshelf,” Cole said. “It is about focused collections.”
The applicants wrote essays on their book collection’s meaning and submitted annotated bibliographies describing the significance of each book—but they were only allowed to describe 50 books in their collections, causing significant editing for contestants like Lamb, whose collection contains more than 1,000 books.
Harkey’s book collection, titled “Out Of Thin Air: A Collection of Old-Time Radio Books and Memorabilia,” began when she started buying books for an essay she was writing for her high school Advanced Placement U.S. History class.
“I basically did a lot of research and didn’t want to give them back to the library when I was done,” Harkey said. “So I started collecting them.”
Harkey estimates that she has between 100 and 150 books on old-time radio.
She said she’s read most of them and added that she plans to continue to collect them in the future with her prize money.
Lamb, whose collection was entitled “A Personal Encounter with Philosophy,” began his love affair with his subject early. He began collecting philosophy books during his early teenage years.
When he was 17, he decided to move to Japan and gave the entire collection away except for 12 of the books, he said.
While in Japan, he threw away the remaining 12.
In his submission essay to the competition, Lamb wrote, “[Throwing away the books] was a gesture of letting go, although I cringe a little when I think of it.” He remained “book-free” for several years, until a wealthy retired philosopher invited him to maintain a library. His passion was reignited, he said.
Since then, he estimates, he has acquired over 1,000 books in his collection at Harvard—and several hundred more that he didn’t bring with him to Cambridge.
His submission included 40 books focusing on the history of Western philosophy and an additional 10 on Eastern philosophy.
Kosman’s book collection, “‘To Arlie:’ An Intergenerational Collection of 20th Century Boys’ Books,” was dedicated to her grandfather, who grew up as an orphan in the 1920s and died at 40 years old.
One of his possessions was a book given to him on Christmas in 1929, called Jerry Todd and the Whispering Mummy.
At the back of the book, there were advertisements for many other children’s books by the author, Edward Stratemeyer, who wrote under several pseudonyms and published many other series of boys’ books, she said.
Kosman, who is also a Crimson editor, says she began collecting books as an “absolution” for her grandfather, who, as an orphan would not have been able to collect the books himself.
Many of her 40 boys’ books have been found at senior centers, and Phoebe plans on using the money to buy more of them.
Cole said previous winners have submitted on subjects as varied as the Berlin Subway system, butterflies, chess, Chinese cooking and comic books.
“There is no limit,” she said, on subjects for collecting books.
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