In My Lifes  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features :    FIRST PERSON    
From AJR,   December 2002

In My Lifes   

What began as an impulse buy became a quest to preserve history. And then there was eBay.

By Bill Barol
Barol writes Blather (www.billbarol.com/blather), a daily Weblog on popular culture and the news, from Santa Monica, California.     


This is what I know about the world in the years before I was born: In the 1930s foreign governments were either clearly friendly or overtly hostile, and always quaint in their otherness. The early 1940s rumbled with the sound of faraway trouble drawing near. In the war years Americans were plucky and defiant, kept their chins up, learned to rivet, saved scraps of soap. The late '40s were years of privation, but a peculiarly American kind in which the new car and the new radio and the long-promised television were not yet in reach, but would be soon. And in the '50s they were, in quantity. The '50s were years of unimaginable abundance, years in which large Caucasian families regularly gathered in the sparsely landscaped yards of their brand-new tract homes to arrange in neat rows exactly a year's worth of canned soup, sewing materials, dungarees and bed linens.

The reason I know all this is that I read it in Life magazine. It's a cliché to think of Life as The Great American Magazine, but it was, and the ways it portrayed America are now largely the ways in which we think of America when we look back. Its reach was so vast and deep that it's not at all clear: Did America shape Life, or did Life shape America?

I wonder about these things because as I write this I am looking at three decades of Life--from the first issue in late 1936, with its iconic cover image of a dam at Fort Peck, Montana, by the great photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, through the 30th anniversary issue of December 23, 1966, which fittingly celebrated the art of photography. I've been collecting library-bound volumes of Life for almost 20 years. The database I use to keep track of my collection tells me that I own 95 volumes, for which I have paid a total of $2,523 so far, at an average cost of $26.56 per volume. But that doesn't tell you much. The statistic I prefer is that the musty, heavy clothbound volumes in my collection weigh about 9 pounds each, which means the whole set clocks in at an impressive 855 pounds, or about as much as a 16.5-foot Alumacraft Navigator fishing boat. (This is true. I looked it up.)

The thing about Life is, it's weighty--in other ways, too--heavy with content and context, the real "first draft of history," in the old journalism phrase. But a single issue doesn't give you the flavor of what made the magazine great. For that you need quantity. So I became a collector.

In the late 1960s I was a kid in Philadelphia, and like every other family I knew we subscribed to Life, which was by then a thin, pulpy-feeling weekly with a number of vaguely contemptuous stories about rock 'n' roll bands. It had already reached middle age and would fold in 1972. What I didn't realize was that Life had once been a glorious youngster — didn't realize it until the day I came across a home-bound set of six or eight issues from the early '40s gathering dust in our basement. The first thing I noticed was that the magazine actually felt different from the Life I knew. The page stock was heavier, glossier; it had more heft and substance. The second thing was the incredible vibrancy of the magazine, the heady mix of ads and articles and those amazing photographs. One page had more to look at, it seemed to me, than a whole issue of the anemic contemporary Life sitting on the coffee table upstairs. I was hooked.

Years later, walking through 30th Street Station, I came across a used-book stall run by the Free Library of Philadelphia. In a box under the table I found four heavy volumes of Life. They were in the same cheap bindings I remembered from my parents' basement, the kind with metal spines that hold issues in place. And they covered a ragged assortment of dates--December 1936, April to mid-September 1937, and April to June 1941. The asking price was $60. On an impulse--I had no place to put them, no way to carry them, and $60 was a lot of money to me at the time--I bought them.

I moved to New York not long after that. I was working for Newsweek, haunting flea markets on Sundays, and I started to see old volumes of Life in heavy cloth covers. Talking to dealers, I learned some new words: "library-bound" which means binding a set of periodicals in board covers, and "deaccessioned," which is library-ese for "gotten rid of." I'd grab a volume when I could, but I had limited room. I was sleeping on a foldout bed in a studio apartment, and it didn't seem right that a few old volumes of magazines (I didn't think of them as a collection yet) should have more breathing space than I did. Besides, they were unconscionably pricey: $50 a volume and up.

Soon I found out why. I started to see 1940s and '50s ads that had clearly been razored out of old magazines, dry-mounted and shrink-wrapped, selling for five to 10 bucks apiece. They looked familiar. Some of them had obviously been cut out of old issues of Life. I can still recall the moment when it dawned on me that somebody was buying volumes of Life that had been deaccessioned and cutting them up for the ads--cutting them up and probably throwing the excess away, that same rich stew of words and images that had so fascinated me since I was a kid. I felt like I was witnessing a desecration. And I started to buy in earnest.

I don't think it was consciously in my mind to do something as romantic as rescue a whole set of these magazines, to keep them out of the clippers' jaws. Besides, the supply was thin. I'd see a volume here, a volume there, and I'd buy what I could reasonably afford. Sometimes logistics intruded: Road-tripping through Texas I found four beautiful volumes in a Gruene second-hand store but had to pass because of the shipping costs. My obsession remained in check.

That is, until early 1999, when I discovered eBay. For me, as for millions of other seekers of the obscure, eBay changed everything. Suddenly I had a supply that seemed limitless. I was living in California now, in a house, and I started eyeballing the available shelf space. And I filled it: Two volumes from a guy in New Mexico, $56. Five from Arizona, $325. Then, in the spring and summer of 1999, jackpot. A dealer in New Jersey was selling the castoffs of a high-school library in California--55 volumes, covering portions of the years 1945 to 1966. These totaled a little over $1,100, and the only thing I can say in my own defense is that I was swept up in the thrill of the hunt.

Things slowed down a bit after that, mercifully. But I've managed to score 17 more volumes in the three years since, averaging one about every nine weeks--a more sedate pace, one I feel I can keep up without bankrupting myself, alienating my wife and causing the shelves in my office closet to collapse, and one that's allowed me a little breathing room to reflect on what my collection means.

Reading Nicholson Baker's sublimely cranky anti-deaccessioning polemic "Double Fold," it occurred to me to trace some of my volumes back to the libraries that tossed them. The mother lode, the one from the dealer in New Jersey, came from the library of Burroughs High School in Ridgecrest, California. No one there had any recollection of the deaccessioning. The whole year of 1949, beautifully bound in black, was withdrawn from the collection of DePaul University, donated to the Newberry Library for its 2001 book sale, sold to a Chicago dealer, listed on eBay and resold to me for $153. Roger Stelk, the collection development coordinator of the DePaul library, told me the volumes were duplicates, and the library maintains a full run of Lifes. "We'd consider it extremely detrimental to our collection to get rid of a complete run of a title such as Life," Stelk says.

This sort of unequivocal endorsement makes me happy. As Baker argued eloquently, there's no substitute for access to a big, heavy volume of print material. The act of turning the page is literally revelatory. Looking at August 1957, to pick a month at random, I can sniff out the wary condescension with which the establishment regarded international communism (Ho Chi Minh, visiting Poland, was "an impulsive tourist whose flamboyant display of comradely kissing has rarely been equaled, even among the vodka-drinking Russians"). I can sense the hopeful promise of science and technology ("Are you cooking the 'hard' way? Check the 'Live Better Electrically' scale and see") and hear the wistful sound of time passing, even for movie stars ("Gary, Cary Remain Frisky Past Fifty"). And I can see, in one double-truck ad for the Ford Motor Co., an ironic twist on the zeitgeist of the 1950s: "A man in your town recently made a decision that will change his life. This man took his money, his skill, his business reputation, his whole future and--becoming an Edsel Dealer--he staked it all on the new Edsel automobile."

I am closing in on 100 bound volumes of Life now, and my collection still isn't complete. It has gaps, particularly in the war years. I suspect those issues have been disproportionately razored up for their stock of jingo-rich wartime ads. But the gaps are where I focus my attention now, and when I look out at the horizon I see a vastly reduced landscape of volumes ungotten. Someday it will shrink to nothing--I'll buy my last volume, and I'll be done. There'll be some satisfaction in the simple having of them all, that completist fetish that drives collectors of every kind. The difference is, what I'll have collected is history, as it was lived by average Americans and reported on the spot. That's the history that's easiest to lose. That's what makes it the most worth preserving.

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