Portrait

Meet the County Court judge whose love of literature knows no bounds. By Ceridwen Dovey.

Collector’s addition makes for impressive library

A kindly, bespectacled gentleman asked me at a recent event to sign a copy of my first novel, Blood Kin. This took me by surprise. That novel came out years ago in a tiny print run, and most of the surviving copies have long since been pulped. The copy he held in his hands was in perfect condition, the dust jacket covered with another protective layer of plastic. I felt moved and a little embarrassed, and asked how he had come upon it.

Graham Anderson, waiting for me to scribble on the title page, tells me he collects first editions of books. He lost his home at Mount Macedon, and many books from his previous collection, in the Ash Wednesday bushfires of 1983. Most painful among the losses was a handwritten list of books he had read, kept since the early ’70s. The first book on the new list he started after the bushfires was John Mortimer’s Clinging to the Wreckage, but in fact the bushfire had motivated him to start again, to collect more seriously. 

In response to my persistent questions, he revealed he is a judge of the County Court of Victoria, and sent me his numbered notes from a talk he gave last year for Rare Book Week at Victoria’s Supreme Court library. 

2. I am primarily a reader of modern fiction, or what is perhaps snobbily called literary fiction. And those are the books I collect in their first editions – the modern firsts. 

6. I have a collection, at home, maintained at about 3000 books, primarily of fiction writers. Those authors might also write poetry, children’s literature, biography, travel or other nonfiction works which I also collect. Above all else, I have an obsession with completeness. 

7. In addition to the books I have at home, I have lodged with the State Library of Victoria about 2000 books. These are held in the library’s Rare Books Collection as examples of the article known as “the book” from the late 20th and early 21st century.

9. I know that in the past 31 years I have read 2971 books. Seventy-two per cent were fiction books – either novels or short stories and 43 per cent of all the books read were by Australian authors. In each of the 16 years I have been in my present job, I have read more than 100 books each year. 

An old friend came up to him after the talk and said, “You really are certifiable.” 

Anderson knows how the obsessive collecting must look to others. Of a close relationship with a British book dealer, he says: “He has been supplying me for over 15 years. It is interesting how the terminology transfers across from other forms of addiction.”

He suggested I ask Des Cowley, rare printed collections manager at the State Library of Victoria, to show me the portion of the Graham and Anita Anderson Collection already housed in the stacks. Cowley wrote the entry on Anderson for the Australian Book Collectors compendium. In it, he tells the story of how Anderson bid at his first (and only) book auction in 2001, securing four lots in the auction of Peter Carey’s manuscript archive, including an unpublished novel, Wog. Unknowingly, he was bidding against the State Library. When Anderson discovered this, he donated his full Carey collection to the library (130 items, most of them signed, not only the first Australian, British and US editions of all Carey’s books but also copies of anthologies to which Carey had contributed, and early stories published in magazines such as Australian Letters and Australian Playboy). 

This was the start of Anderson’s donations to the library. In the Australian Book Collectors entry, Cowley writes: “For Graham, the knowledge that his comprehensive collections of individual authors will be kept together in the library has validated his years of book collecting; an activity he admits is a ‘strange occupation in the eyes of many’.” 

In the library’s storage wing, Cowley turns the metal wheel to wind the stacks slowly apart. A reader’s dream of beautiful first editions is revealed: Christina Stead, Randolph Stow, Thea Astley, A. S. Byatt, J. M. Coetzee, Mo Yan, Naguib Mahfouz; all the works by Miles Franklin prizewinners since its inception; almost every first edition published by Orange Prize shortlistees and winners.

Cowley picks an Iris Murdoch edition from the shelf (The Flight from the Enchanter) to show me the cover illustration, a fish merging with a human face in beige and turquoise, by the graphic artist Edward Bawden. 

I ask him how Anderson finds the time to read so voraciously. “I honestly don’t know. Perhaps because they don’t have a television?” Cowley says. “It’s very unusual for a book collector to have read every item in his own collection. Some collectors, if you ask them about a particular book, their eyes glaze over. With Graham, it’s the opposite. He’s a reader first, then a collector.” 

Most of the collected books are signed. Once Anderson flew to the Adelaide Writers’ Week with a suitcase filled with his complete collection of Ian McEwan books. McEwan happily signed all 40 items. 

The V. S. Naipaul collection is also complete: 27 first editions, all of them signed. Anderson took a chance and asked for a personal audience with Naipaul in his suite at the Hyatt in 2001: 

38. My wife, Anita, and I timidly presented ourselves at the hotel, where we were met by the publisher’s representative. We wheeled our suitcase of books into the Naipaul suite. Present also were Lady Naipaul and Naipaul’s agent. Sir Vidia was as nice as pie and signed all the books. Three months after the Naipauls visit to Melbourne, he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature.

Another unusual modesty for a collector, Cowley tells me, is that none of the books is marked by Anderson; no collector’s plates claim them as his. 

Later that evening, I see Anderson and his adult daughter, Jana, at another book event. 

“Jana said I should agree to the profile,” he says shyly. 

“Dad has been known to read an entire novel before work, over breakfast,” she says, smiling proudly. 

He is looking behind them, making sure they are not keeping anybody waiting who might want to get a book signed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 24, 2015 as "Collector’s addition". Subscribe here.

Ceridwen Dovey
is the author of Blood Kin and Only the Animals.