Bard College librarian Helene Tieger’s hands, gloved in blue latex, place the 1556 copy of the Magna Carta on blocks that will support it with minimal stress on the spine. With infinite gentleness, she opens it to display a pair of pages. I can’t read the Latin, but my mind is boggled by the idea that I’m looking, in person, at a world-changing text printed four and half centuries ago.
Waiting for my perusal are a first edition of Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792), a Passover Haggadah from Amsterdam (1695), and other relics, just a smattering of the Sussman Rare Book Collection, donated to Bard’s Stevenson Library by Woodstock attorney Alan Sussman. After five years of preparation, the collection will open on October 29 with an exhibit of manuscripts, or handwritten texts, including an Ottoman Qur’an, a Coptic Bible from Ethiopia, a Japanese Sutra of Amida Buddha, and many more treasures.
The list of titles in the collection is over 80 pages long. “Now that a good portion of the cataloguing is done,” said Tieger, “we’ll have time to learn about the individual works.” The Magna Carta has already been researched for a 2015 exhibit that provided a sneak peek at the collection, in commemoration of the 800th anniversary of the agreement between King John and the English barons, the first document to limit the power of the English kings. From 1215 to 1508, only handwritten copies of the Magna Carta existed. The edition donated by Sussman appeared just 48 years after the charter was first printed by mechanical means.
Like any collector, Sussman has brought his own particular slant to the process of acquiring an eclectic assortment of books. As a lawyer, he included many legal works such as 16th-century copies of Latin treatises by Justinian and an account of the trial of Marie Antoinette. Tieger pointed out that Sussman collected abundant documentation of both sides of such issues as slavery and women’s suffrage. “These books trace where arguments developed,” she said, “and how important themes worked themselves out in our culture.”
In an interview at his home in Shady, Sussman elaborated on his fascination with these subjects. “When I was born, slavery had been legal less than 80 years earlier. We speak today as though certain things are unthinkable: that a human being would own other human beings and could require them to do whatever they wished simply by virtue of that ownership. Yet for thousands of years it wasn’t unthinkable. That’s what interests me. What thoughts were offered to justify institutions like slavery?”
The collection has a book written by an English jurist on “what is permitted and not permitted when someone is being flogged.” Also included are eight different versions of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, exploring the notion of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, which gained currency at the end of the 19th century.
One notable category is a ten-page selection of titles relating to the English civil war and constitutional crisis of the 17th century, when King Charles I was put on trial by Parliament, found guilty, and beheaded. “During this long period,” explained Sussman, “the British knew they were unhappy with the monarchy, but they were uncertain as to what they should do once the king was gone. There were thousands of books and pamphlets written about what the proper shape and purpose of government should be. Out of this, in 1688, emerged the English Bill of Rights — of which we have an original copy. It was a primary source of the American Bill of Rights.”
Sussman recalled that although he loved books from a young age, he became even more intrigued when he discovered that some books were forbidden due to sexual or political content. He grew up in Tacoma, Washington, then a small community with no bookstores except for a used bookdealer located in a seedy part of town. The owner, who took an interest in the young man who occasionally visited to browse the shelves, one day took from under the counter a book to show him — an account of the Seattle general strike of 1919.
“It impressed me that this book was hidden,” said Sussman. “It was a type of book he didn’t want the authorities to know he had,” since it might be seen as evidence of sympathy with Communism, a dangerous stance at the height of the McCarthy era. Sussman later obtained a 1948 Report of the Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in Washington State. Not to neglect the other reason for book-banning, he also acquired a first edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
“I didn’t intend it to be a collection of banned and censored works,” he noted, “but I’m learning now how many of them were prohibited, books that today we take for granted as fundamental milestones in Western civilization: works by Locke, Kant, Maimonides, Flaubert.” The collection contains a first edition of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico Politicus of 1670, one of the first books to suggest that God was a manmade character. “It was printed in Amsterdam, where he lived, but the title page says it’s printed in Hamburg because the printer didn’t want to get arrested,” said Sussman. “In the last years of the French monarchy, there were 180 censors who were full-time employees. When the Bastille was stormed, it was loaded with authors, publishers, and booksellers.”
While the forbidden added to the allure of owning books, Sussman also discovered “something about the physical object, about holding it in your hand, feeling, smelling, seeing this artifact that is just very attractive, if not seductive, to me. It’s a sensual thing as well as an intellectual thing. When you combine sensuality and intellectuality, you’re on rare turf. Roland Barthes wrote a book called The Pleasure of the Text. He said bliss can erupt across centuries in a text.”
Sussman noticed that in older editions “more care was given to font size and shape, what the margin was going to look like. The paper is often of extraordinary quality. Some have chapter headings with flourishes of a baroque flower. The beauty, coupled with intellectual content, I thought was worthy of keeping.”
More modern relics include works Sussman collected in the 1960s, when they were first published. The extensive list includes Ed Sanders, Bobby Seale, Taylor Meade. “I knew with certainty that what was being written then as beatnik or political literature would someday be valued,” he said. “Some of them were written on the flimsiest of paper, in pamphlet form and reproductions.” He also gathered what he calls “Woodstockiana,” from Hervey White’s Man Overboard, a Naughty Novel (1929) to a series of lectures given at Byrdcliffe in 1938, including “Bauhaus Education” by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy.
“Some years ago, as it happens with anyone of increasing age,” said Sussman, “you begin to wonder what you’re gong to do with what you’ve collected. It seemed proper to donate this collection to an institution that would continue to treasure it and care for it. Books don’t require a lot of maintenance, but they need to be properly stored. I taught at Bard part-time for the last 17 years, so I had a relationship with the college.”
To display the books, Sussman donated a room, sectioned off from an end of the library’s main room. The library already owned an antique glass-fronted bookcase in dark wood, topped with a Palladian arch. This handsome cabinet provided the model for four matching bookcases, created by woodworker Stephen Robin of Woodstock. He deliberately varied certain details so it would be clear which one was the original, but to the casual eye, the bookcases all appear to be early 20th-century. Robin also built the reading desks, while other Woodstockers contributed to the project: Cornelia Rosenblum chose the chairs and carpet; the bookplate was designed by Joanie Stahl and printed by Stephen Kerner.
“I find it interesting that in this age of technology, people are more interested in the book as object than ever,” said Tieger. “We have faculty teaching the history of the book. And now that we have the reading room, people will be able to request to see these rare books. Bard has a tradition of making their collection available to scholars.”
Bard professors and students will also be able to use the collection in coursework. Sussman commented, “I would like students to know, and their professors to remind them, that they can go to the library to hold in their hands and read the books that formed or shaped the content of their courses of study: Dante on poetry; Darwin on biology; Newton and Einstein on math and physics; Luther on religion; Grotius on war; Wilberforce and Garrison on slavery; Wollstonecraft on women; Mendelssohn on Judaism.” The Sussman Rare Book Collection will make that experience possible.