From Germany to Costa Rica: A Life with Books
For as long as I can remember, Rudolf Dieke has collected antique books. I've marvelled at his collection many times; walls piled high and wide with books from other times, with bindings at once delicate and muscular. As a young girl I dared not touch them because I knew he treasured them. Now, they mean more to him than ever, but I also know the value these books have as treasures in their own right.
In August 2009, he wrote a statement about his collection, which included the following confession: “I know now that for me this contact with the past holds an important emotional meaning. A madness? No, there have been worse fools.”
Raised in Nazi Germany, in a northern city called Oldenburg, Rudolf Dieke left the harsh winters of post-war Europe in the late 1950s for the warm, fertile valleys of Costa Rica, where he spent a lifetime working in the coffee industry. My grandfather is a passionate man, whose stoic facade conceals a depth of knowledge and enthusiasm that make him not just interesting, but infinitely endearing. After duly noting my attempts at a conversation about his collection, Opa, as I call him, sat me down and began to talk, urging me to perch on stools and run to other rooms to bring him items he referenced.
How did you become a collector of antique books?
Throughout my life I have collected all sorts of things. How I've taken care of stamps and coins and their respective catalogues! Later on in life, and of more value I supposed, it's been paintings by national artists. And it's always been an interesting business, a fun affair. I never really asked myself about my thirst for collecting objects, but I was overtaken with emotions when I acquired or negotiated something, when I with luck and perseverance got hold of something I deemed important for my collection.
So why is it that for the past 20 or so years I have sporadically but increasingly delved into “old books” territory? Where to start and where to finish? What are my favourite topics or my criteria besides “oldness”?
I have always liked literature very much, but reading and collecting are two very different things. On one occasion in which some old books came to my hands, I felt that books could be more than texts or data compilations, more than providers of knowledge or entertainment.
I started some day with the old “Oldenburg Reading Book” (Behrens-Bernett-Pleitner), edited after the First World War in the Stalling house. In my school years this book was already considered old, and during my last year at the Hindenburg Schule in Oldenburg I wrote a thesis on it. I discovered that its covers bound not only scholarly texts, but a whole world that opened before me, at that early age, and that prose – fables, legends – as well as poetry – from Hans Sachs to the classics – transported me across centuries.
When I was around 20 years old, circa 1953, the old school supply shop in Oldenburg went out of business, and they auctioned off their inventory. I went because I was in search of a typewriter, an Olympia. They were too expensive though, so I didn't get one, but while I was there I made a bargain for three boxes full of books and school materials. Most of it was rubbish, and I gave away the supplies. But I stayed with about 40 books that were good enough, from the 19th century. It was a steal!
What is your criteria? How do you choose the books you buy?
I find joy in being the owner of an antique book. I admit I don't really follow a strict pattern or collection strategy. Maybe at the beginning I let myself get carried away by a book's age; I focussed more than anything on the year of the edition. But at least I didn't succumb entirely to a lack of system: my main passion, with a wide ranging criteria, is anything in the realm of discoveries, travel journals, geography and social studies. After that, and with a more limited criteria, history and religion, and still after this, the classics of literature. And if I can get a first edition of any of these, better still! My current collection consists of about 700 decent items. It's an acceptable figure – but perhaps not so impressive if I were to find myself with a peer or group of collectors. But going back to the thematic analysis, I'd like to add that I've usually left aside jurisprudence, medicine, natural sciences and technology.... even though a good number of these have already found their way into my shelves.
I'm particularly proud to point out that my collection is now more than just a series of books. Some volumes are truly works of art, magnificently bound in the Moroccan style1 or with fine leather, with rich embroidery on the spine, etc. This is a purely aesthetic aspect that in some cases is embellished even more by rich illustrations, like beautiful prints. Others are so impressive in their content that they succeed in invading me with a sense of another time, full of wondrous discoveries and realities of the time; magical messages. The past speaks textually.
Do you remember any acquisitions in particular, and how they made you feel at the time?
I think I have the energy to acquire more antique books following my criteria and, of course, each new acquisition fills me with a new sense of success. Maybe with this feeling I replace others that are, perhaps, missing.
I have clear memories of some acquisitions. And each memory comes to life each time I hold a particular book in my hands. I acquired Chamisso's volume of “Journey Around the World” (Lolls-Elberfeld, 1864) in El Zócalo, in Mexico. I found Cesar Cantu's “Universal History” (Gaspar y Roig, Madrid, 1857) in an antiques shop in the Plaza Viquez in my own San José, CR. I obtained the Biblia Sacra Vulgata (Sixti V Pontificis Maximi, Martinum, Vienna, 1718), the so-called Vulgata bible, for a very good price. The same applies to a beautiful second edition from Alexander von Humboldt, “The New Spain” (Lecointe, Paris, 1836). I have also bought books in Buenos Aires, Quito, Budapest, Potsdam and in Portobello Road in London, among several more cities.
Finally, have you read them all?
Have I read all my books? No... although some, of course, yes! But I have at least leafed through all of them and many I read in parts. The supply of antique books available in the book market is not very big at all. I will always keep looking, but at the same time, and with great pain, I will separate myself from some volumes, getting rid of some to replace them with better quality items. Various authors who write books about books have pondered about the topic: Wulf D. von Lucius and Catherine Porter, for example, in “Collecting Books.” According to them I am still an amateur, of the lowest ranking, since I have not embarked yet on the statistical and organisational aspect of collecting for which there are certain parameters of classification. For that reason I should perhaps stay in the little leagues, at a level that I find fun. I think I will find good company here. I have already had a few interesting conversations with some of these fools for books. There are not that many of us.
1 The Moroccan style of binding is recognised for its beauty and durability. It became popular in Europe in the sixteenth century. Source: Types of bindings. Bauman Rare Books, 2012. Web. 25 September 2012. http://www.baumanrarebooks.com/rare-book-collecting/types-of-bindings.aspx