[one]Walking into the MSU Library these days, it seems to be more of a place for socializing than for reading or studying. At every table in the cafe and even walking through the aisles of books, people are talking on cell phones or chatting – sometimes loudly – with friends. What happened to the image of libraries as a sanctuary for book lovers? And that leads to the question: has reading gone the way of good radio – has reading died?
Those individuals behind the Special Collections division of the MSU Libraries refuse to believe reading is dead. Peter Berg, assistant director for Special Collections, is the coordinator for the annual MSU Student Book Collection Competition. This is one sign that not only reading, but also book collecting, are not lost arts afterall.
Book collecting as it is practiced by many of the entrants in the Student Book Collecting Competition is not what it used to be – no longer are most collectors combing through stacks of used books for rare first editions or signed copies. Definitions of what makes a person a book collector can vary, especially among people who consider themselves collectors. It can be as simple as buying books that suit a particular preference, though serious collectors are often interested not only in the content of the books, but the physical books themselves.
“Through the competition, I’ve been very impressed with the tremendous variety of what students are reading and collecting,” Berg said. “The collections have been wonderfully and surprisingly eclectic.”
For people like social relations junior Ari Sussman, book collecting must be more than merely owning all of the works of a particular author. Sussman was a finalist in last year’s competition with his collection of books that documented the transition from an Eastern European Jewish identity to an American Jewish identity. “Unless the actual, physical books are unique in terms of age or scarcity, or to a lesser extent, sentimentality, a collection has hardly any value anymore,” Sussman said. “There’s hardly anything exciting about collections of mass-produced commodities.”
The Student Book Collection Competition is in its tenth year at MSU and is sponsored in part by the MSU Friends of the Libraries. Each year, a call for student book collectors is sent out, and the library narrows down the entries to five or six finalists. All finalists receive a monetary prize, and the first place winner then advances to the Collegiate Book-Collecting Championship, which is sponsored by the Fine Books & Collections Magazine. At this national book-collecting competition, the top prize is $2,500.
[people]“The biggest responsibility of a university is to help students grow in ways they never thought possible,” Berg said. “With education on the university level, most of the learning takes place outside of the classroom. It’s the people you meet, the events you go to. You learn more about non-classroom subjects and ideas by reading outside of class. We, the library, go beyond the collections in the circulation stacks. We celebrate the printed book, and the competition is a way to recognize and celebrate students who are also book collectors.”
The thing about the entrants in the competition is that many of them do not consider themselves “book collectors.” They are merely ordinary students who enjoy reading and books. Last year’s first place winner, anthropology senior Tony Fitzpatrick, is one of these kinds of students. Fitzpatrick’s collection was compiled of 45 books by science-fiction author Robert Heinlein.
“My collection was loosely a ‘collection,’ as the books were all by the same author,” Fitzpatrick said. “I wasn’t really trying to create a collection. I was just buying books I wanted to read. Reading has always been a big thing in my family. I would spend about three-quarters of the day reading if I could. As far as collecting goes, I have had to force myself to stop buying books because I have had to move a few times, and just can’t haul all of them around with me.”
The general consensus seems to be that entering the competition is less about being recognized for having a spectacular collection of books, and more about the money – four of the six finalists from last year cited the prize money as the motivation for entering the contest, and because each already had books that could be easily fitted into a “collection”, entering was mainly a matter of writing the essay.
“I like buying books, but it’s more of an addiction than a hobby,” classical studies senior Matthew Chaldekas said via e-mail. Chaldekas won second place in the competition last year with his collection of Greek and Latin books. “It was definitely a fairly cohesive collection, but I don’t think of myself as a book collector. I buy a lot of books, and I probably like buying books more than I like reading them.”
In these times, however, with sites like Facebook, MySpace, online news and podcasts, sitting down to read a book can seem like an old-fashioned and time-consuming activity, particularly for college students. “Since I am usually very behind in my school reading, I don’t read a lot outside of the daily paper and Internet stuff,” Chaldekas said. “When I do read during the school year, I like to think that I am bettering myself, so I’ll read some kind of educational non-fiction or a classic.”
“In high school, I would go to the library once a week or every other week to borrow a big stack to read and relax at night,” zoology sophomore Jenn Chen said in an email interview. “But now in college, I’ve found no time to read and relax and it’s disappointing to me, because I absolutely love reading. If I get really stressed out, I find myself hanging out in Barnes and Noble just to read a non-thinking book, and they really do get my mind off the stressful events in my life.”
But despite all this, reading still perseveres. Someone must be buying and reading all those books that make it to the New York Times Bestseller list. Popular series like Harry Potter and Shopaholic sell by the millions every year. Anyone can publish a personal memoir and it will fly off the shelf. Many students prefer reading these kinds of books because they are entertaining, easy to read and require less thought than the classics or textbooks.
“Reading books outside of academic focus can be very refreshing and revitalize the mind to go back to the academic world. In reading, you are conditioning your mind to spend a longer time with a particular subject matter,” Berg said.
[alice]“When you’re at school, you get intensely involved in schoolwork, studying, and classes that all you think about, even when you’re trying to relax, is school,” Chen said. “There’s no way to avoid school when you’re living right on campus! I find that the next best way to avoid school is to engross yourself in a fictional world. You can find solace in a different world and pretend that everything’s OK and there’s going to be a happy ending.\”
Chen also enjoys reading for its ability to raise cultural awareness. \”There are masses of books out there that have yet to be explored and if you become too focused on one area of reading, your outlook on life and opinions on current events or global views will be extremely shortchanged and lacking. It’s good to be worldly now,\” she said.
Though many college students are often too busy to sit down and read, those who were once avid readers are still book lovers underneath the busyness.
“I definitely find a lot of value in books,” Chaldekas said. “There’s so much knowledge there and it’s something that you can only acquire on your own. Reading is an integral part of one’s self-education.”

The deadline for entry in this year’s Student Book Collecting Competition is March 30. The competition is open to all MSU students, including graduate and professional students. For more information, visit the contest page at http://www2.lib.msu.edu/features/?e=11.

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