The book collections of the Newton Prize winners are currently on display in the McCabe lobby, so the Gazette found the two winners and asked them a little bit about what drives them to collect.
Julian Chender ’09 was the first-prize winner, and it’s a good thing, too, as “I have over one hundred books… my entry was probably longer than my thesis.” The collection of books on humor, and specifically “the humor of suffering people… it’s not the thousand best jokes in the world, it’s not unintellectual… I mean, humor is not necessarily an intellectual thing, but I go to Swat, so I had to make it so,” is actually a third-generation collection, the core of which Chender inherited from his father and grandfather.
Chender inherited a number of books on Jewish humor—“which is really a great way to understand [the Jewish people],” such as a book about Hyman Kaplan from “1937, four years before my grandfather came to this country,” and Look Back, Mrs. Lot, “the first humor book about Israel.” He decided to furhter expand the collection in other suffering-related directions.
Chender’s favorite humorist is Spike Milligan, who wrote “what are, I am sure, the six funniest books on World War II you will ever read,” memoirs that chronicle his time in the royal artillery in England, Algeria, Tunisia, and Italy.
Other highlights on view are a book about Idi Amin which was “never published in the United States because of racism” and 1066, “the original history spoof.” Chender also pointed to Is Sex Necessary? by James Thurber. “It’s a chronicle of his horrible relationships with women… these guys were terrified of them.”
Looking at Why A Duck?, a collection of highlights from the Marx brothers “which my dad got from a college girlfriend,” Chender reflected that “none of these guys had easy lives. That seems to be a trend with humorists and comedians, and that’s one of the things that interested me… with Spike Mulligan, he keeps what’s funny funny and what’s not not, and you see the pain that humor comes from very clearly.”
So will the collection pass to another generation? “I hope my kids will also collect… but I inherited the very specific humor gene of my family and my brother did not, he looks at my dad cross-eyed when he tells jokes… it’s a question of whether they inherit that gene,” Chender said.
Stephen Graf ’09 has collected over fifty books about art after 1945, twenty-seven of which are on display in McCabe. He said that growing up, “we didn’t have many books around the house, just magazines and newspapers.
“I wanted things you could really hold on to, so I started reading first math textbooks, and then I liked older art, maybe because it had the same precision… but when I found contemporary art, and realized everything didn’t have to be perfect and precise, that was great,” Graf said.
In high school, “I was hoping to have an art history class, but it was never offered, so I had to teach myself,” and started finding books being discarded from the local library and at bargain bookstores. Graf continued, “I liked that with contemporary art you had to get the whole story… a lot of it is very contextual, for example performances or site-specific work.”
He pointed to Art Now, a collection of around a hundred different artists working now, as one of his favorite books, saying “it’s funny when movements do emerge… a lot of people have a desire to make movements when a few artists are doing the same thing, but I’m fine with it being all over the place—that’s beautiful.”
A significant subset of Graf’s books have to do with identity politics and art, his favorite of which is the catalogue from the 1993 Whitney Biennial. “Nearly every piece in that show was about in-your-face identity politics, and people thought that was gratuitous and vulgar, but I really like it… it relates to areas where I make art through theater,” Graf said. “I think it’s important for oppressed groups to make universal art, but when it’s hard for them to do that and get recognition, I think it’s good when those communities can throw it in your face.”
Today, Graf continues to collect, sometimes online and sometimes in his favorite bookstores in New York. “I like St. Mark’s and Bluestockings, but I really love finding hole-in-the-wall bookstores and seeing if I can find weird books published in the 1970s,” Graf said.