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COLLECTION Identifier: MS Am 3351

John Ashbery Reading Library

Content Description

The John Ashbery Reading Library includes approximately 5,000 books collected by the poet over the course of his lifetime (1927-2017). Letters and manuscripts found in the books have been moved to Houghton Library’s collection of John Ashbery’s papers (identified with the call number MS Am 3189); copies of these materials have been retained with the original book.

Additional artifacts from Ashbery’s Chelsea apartment and his Hudson, New York home—including select items from the author’s ceramic, figurine, and glass collections and an untitled Ashbery collage that hung above his Chelsea writing desk—are also preserved as a part of this collection.

Boxes designated "Hudson" were drawn from Ashbery’s house in Hudson, New York. Book boxes without that designation were drawn from his apartment in Chelsea, New York City.


  • Creation: circa 1798-2017


Language of Materials

English, French, German, Japanese, Spanish, and other languages.

Conditions Governing Access

RESTRICTED: limited access; consult curatorial staff.

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is shelved offsite at the Harvard Depository. Retrieval requires advance notice. Readers should check with Houghton Public Services staff to determine what material is offsite and retrieval policies and times.


500 linear feet (315 boxes, 1 folder, 1 frame)

Biographical / Historical

Ashbery biographer Karin Roffman wrote a brief history of the poet’s reading library and collecting practices:

“Although not primarily known as a collector, John Ashbery amassed a number of meaningful and idiosyncratic collections throughout his life. By the time he died at the age of ninety, his book collection—which he began actively building in his early twenties—had grown to more than 5,000 titles.

The Chelsea collection provides a kind of time-capsule of Ashbery’s reading from 1966 to the early 1980s. During those years, he rented a series of small apartments in Manhattan, and from 1972 on he moved within the same building at 360 West 22nd Street, so the assemblage of books remained more or less together. These books share connections with a great deal of his writing at the same time: for example, his copy of Vaslav Nijinsky’s diary was integral to his poem ‘Friends’ (Houseboat Days, 1976), originally called ‘Nijinsky’.

The Hudson collection (1978-2017) is much larger than his Chelsea library, due to the space that the 4,000-square-foot Victorian afforded him. Shortly after restoration work was completed around 1983, including the installation of floor to ceiling bookshelves, Ashbery began bringing boxes of books he had been storing at his family’s home in Pultneyville, New York, to Hudson. He also began to explore local antique stores with his husband David Kermani—a favorite weekend activity, and one in which assistants, former students, and friends also participated. Beginning in the 1990s when he taught at nearby Bard College, Ashbery began to spend more time in Hudson, and some books from Chelsea found their way upstate or duplicates were purchased at such stores as the Book Barn.

The earliest materials in this collection are from Ashbery’s childhood. Though there were very few books in the Sodus farmhouse where he lived until 1943, the young Ashbery pored over the few texts that his maternal grandfather Henry Lawrence kept on his bookshelves, particularly a complete set of The Book of Knowledge, which Lawrence gave to his precocious grandson. These original volumes were lost, but Ashbery managed to find a complete set in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

In addition, the Hudson collection features many poetry books that Ashbery purchased during his time at Harvard and his Fulbright years in France. The undergraduate books tend to have a sticker from one of the local stores that he frequented—the Grolier Poetry Book Shop and Personal Book Shop, especially—and most have Ashbery’s signature (a practical addition to avoid getting his books mixed up with his roommates’). Of these, his copy of W. H. Auden’s Collected Poems (1945) is the most heavily annotated. Purchased from the Personal Book Shop in Boston just before Auden’s 1946 reading at Harvard, Ashbery continued to use the book while completing his senior thesis on Auden’s work in 1949.

Ashbery’s collection of books began to expand in the summer of 1950 when he attended his first book auction while visiting his parents in Sodus. Ashbery wrote to his friend, the painter Jane Freilicher: ‘I went to an auction the other day and bought a whole bookcase full of books (about 150) for $1. The only ones I’ve kept are the works of Bulwer Lytton in 13 vols., Stones of Venice, The Medici, and A History of the Borgias. I was hoping also to pick up Vasari, the Phaidon El Greco, and the Complete Dürer but unfortunately I was outbid by a city slicker who happened in at that point.’

In addition to books on poetry and painting, the Hudson collection reveals the depth and breadth of his curiosity on such subjects as cooking, flowers, classical music, fiction (particularly the works of Henry James, Henry Green, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Ronald Firbank), comics, ceramics, Japanese art,18th-century French theater, travel, and spirituality.

The two libraries together—Chelsea and Hudson—offer an incredibly rich point of reference as one follows the poet’s ever-evolving thinking and writing habits. The two collections allow scholars to gain new insights into the mind and memory of a lifelong reader, whose own works complete, as well as evoke, this original book collection.”


The reading library is divided into two series: materials taken from Ashbery’s New York City apartment (Chelsea) and those from his house in Hudson, New York.

The collection is minimally processed.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

2020M-74. Gift of David Kermani, 2019.

Related Materials

A major portion of the papers of John Ashbery held by the Houghton Library was acquired at the same time as the books and separated for processing. The papers collection is identified by the call number MS Am 3189.

Processing Information

The collection is still being processed. When complete, this finding aid will include bibliographical information for each book in the library as well as information about annotations and inscriptions. 


Ashbery, John, former owner. John Ashbery Reading Library, circa 1920-2017 (MS Am 3351): Guide
Houghton Library, Harvard University
2020 February 3
Description rules
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Houghton Library Repository

Houghton Library is Harvard College's principal repository for rare books and manuscripts, archives, and more. Houghton Library's collections represent the scope of human experience from ancient Egypt to twenty-first century Cambridge. With strengths primarily in North American and European history, literature, and culture, collections range in media from printed books and handwritten manuscripts to maps, drawings and paintings, prints, posters, photographs, film and audio recordings, and digital media, as well as costumes, theater props, and a wide range of other objects. Houghton Library has historically focused on collecting the written record of European and Eurocentric North American culture, yet it holds a large and diverse number of primary sources valuable for research on the languages, culture and history of indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania.

Houghton Library’s Reading Room is free and open to all who wish to use the library’s collections.

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