Posted January 13, 2016 by Cooper Point Journal in Arts & Entertainment

{Re}Discovering Evergreen

Who Knew There Were Rare Books Here?

By Jules Prosser

Dear readers, have you ever stepped into the Rare Books Collection? Do you know what it is? Well, it’s a room in the Library full of coolest, oldest, most mind-bending books you’ve never seen or heard of before before. Were you even aware that our humble institution had one? Good, now you know.

The Rare Books Collection is, in my opinion, among Evergreen’s shiniest hidden gems—and it’s hidden in plain sight. It’s a modest-sized, well-lit room behind the ring of computers by the staircase to the third floor. You probably haven’t noticed because you always check your phone while you’re walking up that way. (That’s not entirely a passive-aggressive jab; I do the same thing, too.) However, despite its central location, its presence is meek and quiet.

The Collection is shrouded in mystery. It was started by Evergreen’s first Dean of Library Services, James F. Holly, and his wife sometime in the 1970s, when the College opened. It was small and housed in the Archives up until 2012, where it was located to room 3302, in order to increase visibility and access. Rare book collections as a whole are often found in other cultural institutes, such as universities, museums, libraries, and even bookstores like The Strand in New York City and Powell’s Books in Portland. You can also find them in the University of Washington, Seattle University, and Western Washington University, to name a few in the area.

The Collection houses many antique books, documents, broadsides (beautiful single-sided pages of texts, usually printed by letterpress) and other wonders, such as a big, prize-winning stuff rooster donated to the College by a late alumnus. The rooster, which was taxidermied upon its death, is the solemn guardian of the collection, proudly sitting in the window, watching passersby and greeting those who venture in. There are glass boxes outside the room and in the lower floors exhibiting books as well, quietly beckoning library-goers.

I went there and sat with JR and Victoria, the student employees. Their job is to keep the space open and organized, curate the displays, help visitors, and answer my neverending litany of questions. Some of their favorites include: a signed copy of Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things, a version of Macbeth illustrated by Dali, and an edition of A Season in Hell with a preface by Anais Nin and a series of etchings by Jim Dine.

The Collection has subscribed to a few small presses in the past, such as Perishable Press, Copper Canyon Press, and Quelquefois Press, and works are often sought out and purchased by the college’s reference librarians. It also gets books through estate donations. Some artists donate their handmade books, and alumni often donate collections of rare books, sometimes posthumously. For instance, a lot of books were recently donated to the Collection by the poet Norman Schaefer, entitled the Norman Schaefer Collection of Beat Generation Literature. If you’re into that, like I am, you’ll be happy to know that there is a big case filled with books and broadsides and an Allen Ginsberg LP. There’s also a book filled with photographs Ginsberg took of his pals, which he also signed. An important mission of the Collection is to accumulate and preserve books (both important and obscure) that are too fragile to be put into circulation.

A few of the most well-known books in the Collection are the Codex Seraphinianus (FMR), The Animal is in the World like Water in Water (Granary Books), and Nox (New Directions). You may have heard of the Codex Seraphinianus; it has quite the cult following, and some consider it to be the most bizarre book in existence. At once grotesque and beautiful, the Codex is a huge encyclopedia of an alien universe, not unlike ours. Luigi Serafini painstakingly documents every aspect of this humanoid dream world, illustrating flora, fauna, architecture, clothing, cars, customs, etc., that are reminiscent of earth’s life and customs, but subverted and stretched into unrecognizable and uncomfortable images (for instance, rollerskate feet!). Furthermore, the massive tome is completely composed in a made-up language, adding to its discomfiting nature. Many have taken up the task of deciphering the book, but none have succeeded. The Codex inspires curiosity, confusion, and a need to decipher and analyze. This need, in turn, created an extremely high demand, and that demand gives it the rarity it has today. There are no words to properly describe it (no, really, there aren’t!). It’s weird as hell, and you should allow the weirdness to take over and put you in a trance.

The Animal is in the World like Water in Water is a book comprised of a series of drawings by Kiki Smith entitled Women Being Eaten by Animals, accompanied by Leslie Scalapino’s poetry. The accordion book pulls apart to uncover a series of delicate, violent, and sensual illustrations of a woman being torn apart by carnivorous creatures. If you’re a lonesome person who enjoys reading melancholy books and relishes the feeling of isolation transcending the physical page, this book is for you. You can read more about it by listening to Cross Cultural Poetics, a radio program run by Evergreen’s very own Leonard Schwartz, who hosts interviews with poets, writers, and artists; Episode #226, “Of the Body”, features the artist, Kiki Smith. The late Leslie Scalapino wrote about it as well in her short essay “The Division Between Fact and Experience”. This book is rare because it’s an extremely limited edition; only 45 were published.

You might have read Anne Carson, the brilliant Canadian poet whose words will cut you like glass. Nox is a magnum opus, a haunting reflection on grief, death, family, and the complications that are inherent in them. Written after her estranged brother’s death, Carson sought to create an elegy for him. She includes pasted-in scraps of paper, photographs, and scribbled drawings, which creates the effect of reading a journal. She ties mythology and classic history into her writing. Like The Animal is in the World, the work is an accordian book. It comes in a sleek grey box, which is befitting; it inspires the greyness of melancholy in the reader. You might read it alongside Smith and Scalapino’s book because feeling sad makes you happy. The New Yorker published a beautiful article, “The Unfolding”, that you can read for more information.

The Collection can benefit anyone. It houses old historical documents, such as an edition of Vancouver’s Voyage from the 1700s, a copy of W.E.B DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk from the turn of the century, Native American documents, and maps. If you’re a history nerd–especially a Pacific Northwest history nerd–or you need historical references, or you think things that are older than your great-grandparents are cool, you should pay a visit. If you’re a plant nerd, stop by and see the brilliant pages of botanical illustration. If you’re an artist, and I know a lot of you are, the Collection is brimming with art books, and is the best place on campus, (and perhaps Olympia) to find inspiration and ideas you didn’t think you were capable of having, and you really, really should pay a visit. If you like to think and read critically, or just think and read at all, check it out. Programs, clubs, and groups with a focus on history, botany, and visual arts would benefit from spending time with the Collection. I personally think it is a great date spot. I believe it’s important for all of us to engage directly with the history that consciously and unconsciously shapes our existence. The Collection is a rare opportunity to examine a living, tangible history with your own hands.

Honestly, I fucking love the Rare Books Collection. When I enter, I immediately feel it in my body. I feel nervous, but the best kind of nervous there is; the kind that comes when you’re surrounded by true beauty and you realize there isn’t enough time in a day to go through it all. When I sit down at the big round table with a huge pile of books around me, I find in myself a delicacy I seldom encounter. My touch is lighter, and I handle the pages as if they will turn to dust. I have emotional reactions to the images I view as if I’m at a faraway museum staring at a Caravaggio painting. This is all because I’m a big nerd and a big baby. At this point, if you read my articles consistently, it means you’re one or the other (or both), as well. You clearly enjoy reading, and sometimes you consider taking my advice. Go on, then; support the small and brilliant pockets of Evergreen, support history and art, and support your own hungry mind.