Reading Room in the Maud/Olson Library
Back in October I wrote a couple of blog entries about my journey from the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair to Vancouver, BC to pick up the Ralph Maud/Charles Olson library, and then about my 3800 mile journey, accompanied by my old steaming buddy Henry Ferrini, across the United States, driving the collection of 3800 books to their new home in Gloucester, Mass.
Just to rehash, Ralph Maud was a colleague and friend of the postmodernist poet Charles Olson when the two men taught at SUNY Buffalo in the 1960s. After Olson’s death in 1970 Maud became increasingly interested in Olson’s work and gradually shifted his attention from Dylan Thomas to become one of the world’s leading authorities on Olson’s life and work – much of which centered around Olson’s (and my own) adopted home town of Gloucester Mass. Olson was a man of boundless curiosity, and Maud soon became interested in the sources of his poetry. Along with writing and publishing books about Olson’s work, and editing the scholarly newsletter of Olson studies, Ralph began the ambitious and admittedly Quixotic task of identifying and collecting a copy of every book Olson had ever owned, read, or referred to. In the early 1980s he walked into my used book store in downtown Gloucester and enlisted my aid in this effort.
View from the Reading Room
I liked Ralph immediately. I liked his heart and his passion, and I liked the nuttiness of his project. We carried on a sporadic but fruitful conversation that lasted from our first meeting until his death in 2014. I’d sell Ralph a book or two, and if he needed to dig around for some obscure bit of local history to further his work on Olson, I’d try to help. In 1996 Ralph published a book called Olson’s Reading
which became a key text in Olson studies. (The few copies currently available can be had for $200 – $300.) But he didn’t stop there. The collection kept growing until shortly before Ralph’s death. Thanks primarily to his good will, the generosity of his estate, and the hard work of GWC Board President Andre Spears, the library was gifted to the Gloucester Writers Center – which led to the epic Vancouver-Gloucester library schlep – “3800 books, 3800 miles.”
After considerable dithering, GWC volunteers deciphered Ralph’s original scheme for organizing the books and got them in some kind of order. Then, after everyone had gone home for the holidays, I made a second pass, going through all the shelves and double checking that the books were arranged and identified correctly.
I can’t tell you what a joy it was to spend time in that quiet room – eyeballing each of the books, opening some, allowing my mind the bang around the inside of the vastness of the human universe they called into being.
The span of Olson’s interests was breathtaking. Want to know what deep thinkers in the 1960s thought about psychedelics? Olson, one of Leary’s original guinea pigs, had gathered dozens of books and monographs on the subject, and Maud had re-gathered them all. Or maybe early Mayan civilization, or serpent worship, or cybernetics. The span was dazzling, and the work Ralph put into annotating the books and transcribing Olson’s notes (from the original copies at U Conn, Harvard, and other far-flung locations) into each Maud copy was awe inspiring. I could open, for example, Maud’s copy of Robert Duncan’s long poem Of the War and read Duncan’s notes to Olson (copied by Maud in green ink) and Olson’s notes to himself, as he read (copied by Maud in pencil on nearly every page), tracing the progress of Olson’s understanding of the text and the development of his conversation with Duncan.
Similar layers of annotation could be found in hundreds, if not thousands, of volumes in this collection.
Then there were all the wonderful accidents of alphabetical juxtaposition – Brooks and Henry Adams looking down their noses at Mencken a few volumes down the shelf in The American Mercury, mediated by Anderson’s Melville in the South Seas a few more volumes away. Dahlberg, with his flesh and bones and fleas, stewing on Rocky Neck in East Gloucester while over in ‘Squam, on the other side of the Cape, Foster Damon was assembling the Blake Dictionary, the two of them cheek by jowl in the “D” section.
Or those key Olson texts I’d always been meaning to dig up – Havelock’s Preface to Plato,
Berard’s Did Homer Live? Ralph’s note in Whitehead’s Process and Reality to the effect that the book was Olson’s ur-text – with Olson’s notes transcribed throughout to back this assertion up. Frances Rose-Troup, Stefansson…
The Maud/Olson library turned out to be a far richer resource than I could have imagined. Andre Spears, the instigator and sponsor of this project, maintained from the beginning that, not only was this a library, it was also a conceptual work of art. I was delighted to discover that it was a work of conceptual art in which one might play.
I grew up looking at shelfbacks of the books in my mother’s library, and was always at home ghosting library shelves reading titles and pulling down the ones that caught my fancy. That comfort, that love, was why I got into the old book trade. Now I’ve got it all right here in my home town – as many books as I could ever want to look into, and more than I’ll ever have time to read.
If you happen to drive by 108 East Main St. late one night and see the light on, don’t worry, it’s only me.
The Maud/Olson Library is on the third floor, beneath the dormers