The romance of books: the Newberry Library at 125

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Kerouac says Boo!
  • Kerouac says Boo!
The postcard at the left is from Jack Kerouac to his editor at the time, Malcolm Cowley. Kerouac and Cowley had been working together on Kerouac's novel On the Road. The manuscript had been in the works for about three years when Kerouac sent the "Boo!" postcard; it was an expression of his impatience.

You can see this postcard with your own eyes at the Newberry Library, which has Cowley's papers among its vast collection of millions of books, maps, manuscripts, drawings, photographs, and assorted ephemera. In honor of its 125th anniversary, the library is displaying a selected 125 items in a special exhibit, "The Newberry 125."

The exhibit is housed in two rooms on the first floor of the building, just to the right as you enter. It's understated, not flashy, and dimly lit, in kind of a romantic fashion. Which is befitting, as bibliophiles might feel dreamy while examining these treasures. (Many thanks to Newberry communications and marketing director Kelly McGrath for the personal tour; all images here courtesy of the Newberry Library.)

Here's one of Kerouac's letters to Cowley, sent just after he sent Boo!: "I hope we can publish On the Road at last."

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How about an 1580 edition of Michel de Montaigne's famous essays? Wow.

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(Ever wonder what Montaigne might have done had he had Twitter?)

A Shakespeare first folio? Yep, the Newberry's got it. A fricking Shakespeare first folio, within arm's reach. If you could reach through a plastic case.

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Did you know that the Newberry has one of the largest collections in the world of Herman Melville's works? More than 6,000 of them. Here's a 1954 Yugoslavian edition of Moby-Dick.

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In the category of ephemera, here's a flyer for a Dill Pickle Club masked ball, with Carl Sandburg as one of the sponsors. ("To get in four bits; to get out questionable.")

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And how about these cool baseball cards? They were put out by the American Tobacco Company from 1909 to 1911. Tinker to Evers to Chance among them.

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And lest you think that the Newberry's collection is all old and fuddy-duddy, also on display in the exhibit is a book by Chicago poster artist Jay Ryan (Fondling the Dream: Mistakes, Misprints, and Other Debris From the Posters of Jay Ryan, the Bird Machine, 2005).

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The Newberry has published a lovely companion book, The Newberry 125: Stories of Our Collection, distributed by the University of Chicago Press. It's big (12 inches by 9.5 inches, 219 pages) and beautiful.

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"The Newberry 125" exhibit runs through December 31. The library is located at 60 W. Walton (312-943-9090, newberry.org). It's open to the public and always free.

Some fun facts about the Newberry, gleaned from one its pamphlets:

The Newberry Library was founded in 1887 by a bequest of Chicago civic leader Walter L. Newberry. Newberry died at sea in 1868; his body was preserved shipboard in a cask of rum and later interred at Graceland Cemetery.

Speakers debating at Bughouse Square (Washington Square Park, across the street) used to run into the Newberry to research a particular topic, and quickly run back into the square to resume their debates.

Nelson Algren held a Newberry Fellowship in 1948, during which time he conducted research for The Man With the Golden Arm, which won the first National Book Award for fiction.

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