John Ashbery Reading Library
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.
- circa 1920-2017
Language of Materials
Conditions Governing Access
Extent189 linear feet (189 boxes)
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.”
Immediate Source of Acquisition
- 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
- Finding aid written in English.
- EAD ID
Part of the Houghton Library Repository
Houghton Library is Harvard College's principal repository for rare books and manuscripts, literary and performing arts archives, and more. The library's holdings of primary source material are managed by an expert staff and shared with scholars, students and the public in the reading room.
Cambridge MA 02138 USA