In my profession, I commonly encounter people on both sides of the retail counter who have a real passion for books. The most acute case of genuine bibliomania that I am personally acquainted with, however, involved a man named Michael Hurley, who died in 1984 on the floor of his suburban Southern California bungalow, surrounded by a 35,000-volume library that, in my twenty years of book selling, ranks as the greatest collection of books ever amassed by a person of modest means. A true story that I can share with you now, in order to impart some inkling of the value and variety of rare book collecting, and the marvelous and mysterious passion with which some memorable people have pursued it.
In order to encompass a broad range of material by different authors, many collectors focus on the most important books in a field—what we generally describe as "the high spots." The really astounding aspect of Michael Hurley's collection is that it included so many high spots in so many different areas, each patiently acquired over a 50-year span by a career postal worker subsisting on an annual income that never exceeded $25,000.
From Shakespeare to some of the 20th century's greatest writers, Hurley steadily built a sweeping collection of high spots that defined the development of British and American literature during the past 300 years. Aside from the most catholic examples of the canon, Hurley shrewdly purchased first editions of the noir classics by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and compiled a virtually complete collection of first editions from Arkham House, the legendary publishers of weird and macabre fiction, long before these works came to be regarded as key books of our time. Hurley also collected great children's books, including an utterly remarkable run of A.A. Milne that included the rarest and most desirable states of the first edition Pooh books.
Many of Hurley's most outstanding books were autographed, and reflected his appreciation for "provenance," the origins and histories of especially significant copies of important books that can be recounted and traced through ensuing generations of collectors like an AKC pedigree. Among the many choice books with terrific provenance that Michael Hurley owned were several inscribed first editions by Lewis Carroll, presented by the author to his sister in the year of publication.
Michael Hurley never married and the home in which he stored his superb eclectic library was rented. He didn't even own a car, transforming the garage into an annex for this vast accumulation that was stacked in his living room, and piled to the ceilings of both bedrooms. Crowded out by books, in the last years of his life Hurley slept on a cot in his kitchen. I don't know if there is another human being of whom it could be more truly said, that in common with Prospero, the long-suffering sorcerer from Shakespeare's The Tempest, "[his]… library was dukedom large enough."
Regrettably, this fabulous private kingdom of books was ignominiously disassembled following Hurley's death at the age of 77. Because he never made a will, his estate fell into the purview of the Los Angeles County Public Administrator's office, and after a few of the choicest items were consigned to one of the oldest book selling firms in Los Angeles, the remaining collection was auctioned off in box lots for a fraction of its worth.
Had Michael Hurley been so inclined, he could have sold off books during his old age to supplement his meager pension. With appropriate estate planning, he might have willed his books to a charitable enterprise, or stipulated that they be sold in order to endow a faculty chair at some school of library science. But he stubbornly refused to consider the implications of his own mortality, and the accumulated wealth of his life-long labor was liquidated for scratch.
As an appropriate subject for fireside speculation while savoring some equally rare French brandy, the frequently impenetrable motives of rare book collectors can be an endless source of conversation. Michael Hurley's own insular passing means that any special insight he had concerning book collecting died with him. Although he clearly derived a deep and perhaps inexpressible pleasure from rare books, I believe that the literary treasures heaped around his house were really just a nebulous intimation of the pristine and magnificent library that rested on the gauzy shelves of Michael Hurley's own mind.
At the time, more than 15 years ago, the value of his collection was estimated in the vicinity of $300,000. Considering that the only public record of specific books consisted of a single offering of 206 items that priced out just shy of $115,000, this was, in all likelihood, a very conservative figure. Only a small portion of the library was individually catalogued, and no one will ever know the full extent of its secrets or the true measure of its worth. Given the number of sleepers knocked down to bidders at the County auctions at which I was present, I have no trouble believing that reclusive old Michael Hurley owned a rare book collection worth a seven-figure sum.
Spread your hands as far apart as you wish. Your guess is as good as mine is. In the end, the full extent of Michael Hurley's bibliomania remains the bibliographic equivalent of a "fish story." The big one that got away from us all, which surfaces sometimes and beckons in a bibliophile's fleeting dreams.