I was randomly Googling my Great-Grandfather William A. Read a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know a huge amount about him, since Dad is a little nuts and doesn’t like to talk about his family all that much.
Here is what I do know (mostly from a book about the investment bank he founded The Life and Times of Dillon Read, by Andrew Sobel):
He graduated from Brooklyn Polytechnic at the age of nineteen, and went to work for a bond house called Vermilye & Company. He could apparently write with both hands at the same time, composing a letter with one while solving equations with the other. He formed his own bank, William A. Read & Company, which later became Dillon, Read. He was walleyed, and always wore violets in his lapel. He invented the bond issue which underwrote the construction of the first subway system in New York City. Four of his sons, including my grandfather, his namesake, were naval aviators in World War I. By that time, however, he was no longer around, having died in 1916 of the flu. He was fifty-two years old.
An older cousin once told me that her father (my grandfather’s brother Bayard) had sold his shares in Dillon Read before the 1929 stock market crash. He got $29 million for them. My grandfather waited until after the crash and “only” got $6 million for his. I’ve often wondered what it must have been like to have six million bucks, cash, at the outset of the Depression. It’s kind of astonishing to think about the lengths my grandfather must have gone to to squander all of that by the time he died in 1976. I figure he must have stayed up late at night, pondering ludicrous investments.
But when I Googled his father the other day, I found something else that was exceedingly bizarre–something I’d never heard about. On a rare book site, a copy of the hardbound 1936 auction catalog of “The Splendid Library and Collection of Historical and Literary Autographs of the Late Mr. and Mrs. William A. Read.” It was offered for twenty-five dollars, and extremely oddly, this volume was for sale at a rare bookstore a block from my apartment in Exeter.
The stuff parted with at this auction included a letter from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Poe (“her reply to him for his dedication of The Raven and Other Poems to her”),
from John Keats to his love, Fanny Brawne,
the first four folio editions of Shakespeare (published in 1623),
stuff from George Washington, Thackeray, Twain, Dante, Milton, Oliver Goldsmith, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and apparently a large collection of primary documents used in the witchcraft trials in Massachusetts, first edition of Spenser’s Faerie Queen, “the finest copy of Grimm’s ‘Popular German Stories,'”
“M.T. Cicero’s CATO MAJOR, or his DISCOURSE of Old-Age” printed by Benjamin Franklin,
among lots of other groovy crap–the catalog is 287 pages long. And all of it sold “By Order of the Heirs.”
Some days my family annoys me far more than others.
The foreword of this catalog describes these books as “not the modern sort of library limited to the collecting of one or two special classes of books. It is a more generous kind of collection, rich in many fields and showing a wide range of interests. It is the result of the collaboration of two elaborately balanced minds in search of a library equipped to fit all moods. Not every volume is a rarity, yet every volume was chosen carefully to satisfy a particular need and the whole is so compacted with treasures and delights that it must necessarily attract many collectors by its variety and excellence.”
I bought this catalog for myself yesterday, an early birthday present since I’ll be turning 47 on Monday.
And as I’m now leafing through it, I wonder what the library itself looked like, when all these books still lived together on its shelves. I wonder that these two people I never knew, my great-grandfather William Augustus and his wife, Caroline, would make of me.
Here is a crappy photograph I took last summer with my iPhone of a portrait of her with their daughter Carol (who died in a car crash in France in the Twenties):
I wish I knew what that book lying open across her lap is.
I wonder if my great-grandparents were the people I get my love of books from, as not a whole lot of people who came generationally between us seem to have quite this deep a lust for the printed word.
I love that the foreword of the catalog refers to them both as the minds responsible for putting together this library. I wish I could have known them.
Most of all, I’m glad that the catalog of their library ended up in the magnificently dusty basement store I visited yesterday, just across the String Bridge from my new digs. How odd is that?
But it makes me miss my own collection of books,38 cartons now in storage in California until I can afford to rent a U-Haul truck to drive them across the country. I feel so rootless without them…
‘Ratis, what’s a book you’ve lost that you wish you still had?