[Paul Collins is founder and editor of The Collins Library, a project dedicated to the reprinting of unusual, out-of-print literary works. The most recent title, To Ruhleben — And Back, follows the adventures of Geoffrey Pyke, who, as a teenager in 1914, convinced a London newspaper editor to let him travel to Germany as a war correspondent. Captured by German troops, Pyke was imprisoned at Ruhleben, a German internment camp, from which he eventually escaped, making his way home to write this travelogue at the age of twenty.]
[Paul Collins is currently on tour in support of his memoir, Sixpence House, which recounts his time spent living in the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, known as the “Town of Books.”]
Q: How did the Collins Library come about?
Collins: I noticed as I was putting together the sources at the end of Banvard’s Folly that George Psalmanazar’s memoirs hadn’t been reprinted in 240 years. I thought, “Why doesn’t somebody reprint these?” Then I had the second thought of “Hey, McSweeney’s can reprint these.” From there it turned into thinking about a series of books of that sort, old and forgotten books that should’ve been reprinted but haven’t been. The ironic thing is that I found so many other good books in the meantime that Psalmanazar keeps on getting pushed further and further back in the queue. But someday…
Q: In addition to being old and forgotten, what are the other criteria for becoming a Collins Library book? What makes you think, “We must publish this”?
Collins: Mainly that I like it. There are no real stringent criteria other than that. I read something and I think, “Oh my God, this is a great book! Why haven’t I heard of this? Why is this out of print?” That’s really been about it.
Certainly there are old books that I find interesting but haven’t necessarily aged very well or might not be interesting to others. I want to reprint books that have not just an antiquarian appeal but a fairly direct appeal, a book that holds up on its own. With English as She is Spoke and To Ruhleben — And Back, even people who are not familiar with the Portuguese language or with World War I escapes could pick it up and get something out of it.
This is also why I wanted to have the books re-typeset and in a new edition. Often when people reprint old books they do a straight photographic reprint. The typeset then looks old, and when you are reading the book you are always aware that it is an old book. I want these books to come out as new books, to give people the experience to read them as newly issued books… to feel the way someone might have in the day that Ruhleben came out in 1916.
Q: Is there a loss for the reader in reading these books as if they were new and not as you discovered them? I can’t help but think of your descriptions in Sixpence House of handling the moldy pages of old books in the leather dust filled rooms of old bookstores.
Collins: I now have four copies of the 1916 edition of Ruhleben. I love old books. But the thing is, you can’t get a wide readership of the old books. There are only a few copies of them around, and a lot of them might not be in very good shape. That is why I really want these books to have a genuine second chance. The way that a book gets a second chance is by coming out in a nice, sharp, new edition.
Q: Do you feel that we as a culture are not interested enough in books of the past?
Collins: Part of the problem is that the way that people typically find out about books is through either book reviews or other media like TV and radio. Both tend to be focused on only the current book cycle. Even a book that came out three or four months ago is already off the radar in a lot of cases. You can’t get someone to discuss a book that hasn’t just come out.
For even older books, the media is geared towards those deemed classics, and it feeds upon itself. If a book is obscure and has been obscure for a number of years, then it very likely will stay obscure. We end up with a greatest hits overview of past literature. That is somewhat the way of the world. You just don’t hear about these obscure and worthy books. There is no venue for them.
Q: It seems like with all of the books published each year, it wouldn’t be too difficult for one to go missing forever. Have you found in your research mention of lost books that you hope to someday recover?
Collins: I mention in Sixpence House a book by Dr. Louis Huber…
Q: …with the drawings of…
Collins: …the fossil finds. They supposedly contain all of these plates showing what he has found. I have never found a copy of that; I can’t even find a reference to it. I don’t even really know if it exists, but if it does I would love to get a copy.
Q: Are there books that we as a culture ought to read? On the one hand there is the danger of a greatest hits list of books but on the other hand it is very pleasing to have a community of readers with a common background.
Collins: I have a great love for many of the classics, and I do think that it does give us some sort of common culture. At the same time, I would want people to try to look at other books and look at what got left out. Even if you have this fetish for the classics, even if you are one of the Harold Blooms of the world, you can’t really understand them out of context, without seeing what else was being published at the same time. You can’t understand Moby Dick without reading what Herman Melville was reading. If you really wanted to get inside that book you would be reading all sorts of seamen’s manuals, nautical tales, the popular novels and histories of his time, and also the magazines and newspapers that he read. You can’t really divorce classics from the great mass of other works that they arose from. I’m all for the classics, but not at the expense of closing oneself off from discovering other things, nor should they be read in a vacuum.
Q: The library should be infinite.
Collins: That is one thing that I really love in Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold, where he puts forward the idea that you really need to save newspapers and magazines. No one ever calls newspapers or magazines classics, yet they are an extraordinary window into another place and time. They are often aesthetically quite wonderful. On top of that, sometimes you do find really good writing in them, sometimes extraordinarily good writing. For libraries to focus on having the great books and to be throwing out newspapers, I think is insane and misses the point.
Q: Baudelaire wrote an essay about Constain Guys, an artist of his day, stressing the point that this artist was ephemeral and captured the times.
Collins: Yeah, that is one of the reasons why I love reading old newspapers. In fact, most of my reading is old newspapers. They are neglected, and if you want to find the things that are forgotten that is where you go to. The other thing is, almost by definition, that kind of literature doesn’t hold up over time. It is perishable, it is not current. And yet it does actually give you a feel for the time.
Q: On the Collins Library website you have posted two letters from Alex MacBride concerning the origins of English as She is Spoke. Did you expect any thing like that to happen?
Collins: No, I had no idea! For someone to make a proper scholarly discovery concerning how it actually came about, and after the book had been known for 150 years, was tremendously pleasing to me. I’ve also come across some old newspaper articles that revealed how English as She is Spoke came to be known in the English-speaking world. There was a British traveler in Macao in the 1860s who discovered it being used as a textbook. By reprinting the book we have inadvertently rediscovered all of these things about it.
Q: How would you best describe your role? Do you see yourself as a historian, a curator, or something entirely different?
Collins: I guess I see my role as an editor in just the literal sense of finding books and bringing them out for other people to see. If my role was strictly historical then I would be bringing out all sorts of books that might be of a historical interest but wouldn’t necessarily make for a very good read.
Q: Do you feel that there is an ethical component in editing books and writing histories?
Collins: Yes. The way that one presents the past has a bearing on how people interpret the present. If you present a march of progress, a triumphal vision of the past and its progression towards the present, that is a political stance. As is the Great Man approach to history. There is an implicit sort of politics that one is engaging in with that view of history. Frankly, it implies a world-view I don’t much care for.
Q: Do you think that Pyke is serious enough in writing about his situation in To Ruhleben — And Back? Is he serious beyond writing about the crab crawl and the caterpillar method of escape?
Collins: Yes and no. He was a teenager when he took his trip over there, and his narrative is informed by that. It is also what makes it a lot of fun. I think he is actually very serious about what is happening to him, and he is very aware — as you would have to be once you’ve been in solitary for four or five months.
I think he also realizes two things. The first thing is that you cannot make a bearable reading experience for other people if you make your book simply agonizing to read. The second is that even in the most difficult situations there are things that are absurd and often even funny. I have a problem with works of art that portray human suffering and only human suffering. That to me seems an untrue vision of the world. Even in fairly grim circumstances, if nothing else, people have some sense of the absurd, even if it’s a sort of gallows humor so to speak. I think leaving a sense of the absurd out is often untrue to those sorts of experiences. The fact that Pyke can write passages that are extremely grim and disturbing at one time, and at another time can come off seeming kind of flip about it, is to me is a mark of his accuracy as a writer.
Q: Pyke is reminiscent to me of Stendhal’s Julien Sorel, someone whom is young and full of heroic potential and trying to figure out how to express it.
Collins: Yes. He was someone who was extremely bright, and he knew that he was extremely bright. I think that knowledge actually helps him in the course of the book. He is frequently aware that he is being held captive and actively repressed by people who are much stupider than him, and that actually keeps him going. He also has that sense that he has great potential, and treats it all like a big adventure.
The curious thing about Pyke is that when you hear about him, it is usually for his eccentric inventions during the Second World War. He was really quite an idealist. He was involved in the founding of the national heath care system in Britain after the war, and was also one of the great supporters of UNICEF. In the twenties he founded the first modern progressive school in Britain, modeled after Dewey. He is eccentric and often flippant, but at the same time he was a very earnest person — as people affecting flippancy often can be.
Q: In both the introduction to Pyke’s book and in Sixpence House you bring up obscure materials that are made of sawdust and some other material. In Ruhleben, it is Pykrete, a frozen material composed of sawdust and ice, and in your memoir there are doorknobs made of hemacite, a mixture of sawdust and blood.
Collins: I had never thought of the connection between the two of them before. Clearly, I have an obsession with sawdust. Hemacite was something I discovered accidentally going through an old magazine called Manufacture and Builder. There was a headline in the magazine that read something like: “Doorknobs Made from Blood and Sawdust.” When I saw that headline I had to read it. I then contacted the Plastics Historical Society in Britain and they had never heard of this stuff. That’s when I knew I was onto something. When I find stuff and I have the reaction of What the hell is that? — that is usually when I start working on something.