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Stephen Morris
           Kevin Graffagnino: Bookman to the bone

published March 25, 2007

J Kevin Graffagnino is a man of his word, or words. In a world increasingly dominated by cell phones that are much smarter than their operators, it's nice to know there are still people who are a little nutty about books. Actually, Graffagnino is more than a little nutty. He has gone zinging past "bibliophile," a term to describe your run-of-the-mill lover of books, to "bibliomaniac," a person whose love of books might seem downright pathological. He says he will be happy if the epitaph on his tombstone contains the single word: "Bookman."


J. Kevin Graffagnino

His latest creation as a writer and scholar is All the Good Books: Quotations for Bibliophiles (Vermont Heritage Press, 2006). It is a compilation of more than 1,750 witty, perceptive and eloquent quotations about reading and books ranging from simple phrases to paragraphs.

The quotations are from the denizens of the book world writers, editors, librarians, publishers who tell about the objects of their obsessions. The collection was put together over a 10-year period and is the successor to a similar earlier volume titled Only in Books: Writers, Readers, & Bibliophiles on Their Passion, which was 20 years in the making.

Graffagnino, by day the executive director of the Vermont Historical Society, came by his affliction at an early age. He grew up in Montpelier surrounded by books, some of which came from the private library of Benjamin D. Silliman, a prominent 19-century lawyer and real estate speculator. The books were part of the library his grandparents discovered when they bought the Silliman home in Long Island in the 1920s. They were brought north to Montpelier when Graffagnino's family moved to Vermont in 1961.

In Montpelier, Graffagnino grew up in a house with no television, so while his contemporaries were immersed in the world of "Bonanza" and "I Dream of Jeannie," Graffagnino was reading the penciled annotations that Silliman had made in antiquarian volumes. "I can't recall learning much from poring over these, but I do remember that handling them filled me with a youthful sense of excitement and awe simply because they were old, mysterious and wonderful," he says.

He didn't know it at the time, but he was already in the advanced stages of bibliomania. For a while sports competed with books for his attention, but it wasn't long before he discovered a special talent. A reading test administered in his eighth-grade class set his reading speed as 3,600 words-per-minute, more than five times the average reading rate. The basketball court and baseball diamond were quickly forgotten. "In the world of speed reading," he says, "I discovered I was a superstar."

A chance encounter with the book Gold in Your Attic by Van Allen Bradley, who had been a newspaper columnist in Chicago, helped seal his fate. Gold in Your Attic was about discovering forgotten treasures in hidden places. It convinced Graffagnino that a fortune awaited him possibly in rare, dusty books. He became an "eager young book scout" scouring yard sales and flea markets collecting rare volumes in the way other boys collect baseball cards. Then, at the tender age of 17, he turned pro, starting a mail-order, used-book business under the dignified name "J. K. Graffagnino, Books" to obscure his utter lack of experience. He began buying and selling, eventually settling on the niche of Vermontiana as a specialty that was manageable and profitable.

Graffagnino says he received much encouragement in these endeavors from his mother who had never gone to college but was "very bright and capable. "She encouraged almost anything in the life of the mind," he says.

Graffagnino continued the business through his years at the University of Vermont, defraying his tuition and living costs with his earnings from the business. He abandoned the business reluctantly when he accepted a job in the Special Collections Department of the UVM library. Knowing it would be a conflict to be trading in the same products he was charged with protecting, bibliophilia triumphed over personal economic interests.

Both of his compilations are arranged alphabetically, by author, reflecting Graffagnino's methodology of collecting quotes on good, old-fashioned 4-inch by six-inch index cards. Thus, children's author (Where the Wild Things Are) Maurice Sendak (who writes: "There's so much more to a book than just reading. I've seen children play with books, fondle books, and that's every reason why books should be lovingly produced") is juxtaposed on the same page as Yukon poet Robert Service, who writes:

"A thousand books my library contains;
And all are printed, it seems to me, with brains.
Mine are so few I scratch in thought my head
For just a hundred of the lot I've read."

Graffagnino counts more than 1,500 volumes in his personal library, and he has read a lot more than 100. He reads voraciously, alternating historical tomes that relate to his profession as a historian with light fiction that is pure enjoyment. Once a year, he rereads his favorite, All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren.

His new book provides a sense of discovery and surprise on each page. To call the representation of authors "broad" is to be an extremely poor judge of distance. Contributions range from Woody Allen to Frank Zappa, from Shakespeare to Mike Tyson, who gives us "When I was in prison, I was wrapped up in all those deep books, that Tolstoy crap. People shouldn't read that stuff."

"I don't happen to agree with him (Tyson)," Graffagnino says with a laugh. "But I try to be even-handed."

All the Good Books is not a book anyone will read from cover to cover, it is one to keep by your favorite reading chair for delving, dipping and exploring. It is lovingly produced, a hardbound volume that was printed locally by Sharp and Company Printers of Rutland, with great care given to the details of design and typography. It is a for a person who enjoys holding a well-crafted object. Yes, you could fondle and smell this book.

Thirty years and 3,500 quotations after starting, Graffagnino claims he's done with gathering quotes on books and writing. We'll see. As he says in the introduction to All the Good Books: "It is easier to start collecting book-quotes than it is to stop."


Stephen Morris is the editor/publisher of Green Living (greenlivingjournal.com) and founder of The Public Press. Reach him at Stephen@thepublicpress.com.


published in Vermont Today on March 25, 2007


Stephen Morris

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