The thing about collecting is that, sometimes, it starts accidentally with something small, like a book that piques your interest. Then you come to acquire another thing, and then another. And another. If you’re lucky, the possessions lead to a higher purpose.
In this way, Allie Alvis is lucky. She became $600-richer lucky in April when she won first place in the undergraduate division of Kansas University Libraries’ annual Snyder Book Collecting Contest for her annotated bibliography and essay detailing her collection of books about linguistics and why she loves language. But her real fortune, she says, is in the discovery she made through her accidental accumulation: what she wanted to do with her life.
Alvis was working in a Barnes and Noble, not certain she wanted to continue in retail without a college degree, but not certain what she’d do in college, either. She’d always liked books — “so much so, I ate one once,” she says with a laugh — but didn’t have one particularly arresting topic. But one day she picked up “Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way” by Bill Bryson, devoured it, became interested in linguistics and got her hands on every book about the topic she could.
It was through the increasing pile of books that she found her passions: book-collecting and linguistics, which she’ll graduate from Kansas University with a degree in next year. The two go hand-in-hand, she says, because she gets the “thrill of the hunt” in finding new books to add to her collection and then the thrill of learning its contents. Book collecting — that is, building a personal library suited to a particular personal interest — is the best kind of collecting, she says, because “there’s a sense of ownership of the book, but also of the knowledge within it.”
Alvis’ library focuses on “reverse-engineering the way people talk” but it’s not the only book collection that changed the way its owner viewed the world. Trent Boultinghouse, a senior from Girard, won second place in the contest’s undergraduate division for his curation of primary sources from his hometown — a special place in the history of printing words.
Girard was home to “Appeal to Reason,” a thriving socialist newspaper from the 1890s to 1920s. Boultinghouse’s essay, “Accessible Radicalism: The Subversive Printing Tradition of Girard, Kansas,” told the story through his collection of “blue books,” the leftist public-education pamphlets printed and distributed throughout Kansas during the period. His interest sparked in high school, when he learned his now-conservative town was once home to such radicalism.
“I really couldn’t believe that it existed,” he says. “I was enjoying a bit of teen rebellion of my own and had to know more.”
He, too, wove his pet interest into academic success, writing his honors history thesis on the town’s surprising history.
The contest division’s third-place winner, David Reiersgord, a senior from Edina, Minn., has a collection hailing from South Africa.
He studied abroad there and came to explore it further from back home through its literature, especially in books that relate to its apartheid history. Books there, he says, are expensive and sometimes hard to come by even today, but a culture’s collections are a way to understand it. And his reading has led him to believe cultures are a lot more connected than they may at first appear.
“Why I like reading so much is that it’s the easiest way to go there,” he says. “Opening up a book is like opening up a door and walking around a place and time — you can explore any point of view and find a whole new way of approaching our day-to-day lives.”