Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

June 8, 2011

The 2nd National Book Collecting Contest: An Interview with Kieran Fox

Last week the winners of the 2nd Canadian National Book Collecting Contest were announced, and I was fortunate enough to be able to gather a Q&A from each young collector!

Kieran Fox is a 27-year-old psychology graduate student at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, BC.  His collection (called Superlative Works from the Subcontinent) is an intriguingly unusual one – these Tibetan-language books were all acquired over two trips to the East in such diverse places as Dharamsala, Lhasa and Kathmandu.  Though not a conventional book collector, these works brought together in one place (sometimes transported across borders which considered them contraband) form an impressive whole.  He  placed 3rd in this year’s contest.

Kieran (right) and Gregory Robert Freeman (left) at the SFU Harbour Centre.

Would you have described yourself as a book collector prior to your fateful West – East trip? What are your usual book-buying habits like?

I never thought myself as a collector of books until recently, though I have been buying and reading them compulsively since the age of about 18. Now I think my book-buying borders on addiction; I buy more than I will ever have time to read, but somehow it is nice to have a personal collection behind your back as you go about your daily affairs. And though I’ll never get to them all, you never know when a particular book might be waiting for you at the right time, and suddenly you will end up reading it and agreeing with everything though it’s been sitting on your shelf for years, untouched.

Have you considered adding to your collection since returning to Canada?

More than that, I have considered making a third trip! And this time intentionally keeping my bag light so that I can fill it up. Dharmasala seems like an ideal place to do this – if and when time and money allow!

If it had been possible, would you have prefered to pick up the texts you did in a digital format?

Not at all. There is actually an immense amount of Tibetan material available digitally online, much of it free – but this has never been the same to me as holding a book, being able to take it out to the woods with you, highlight it, annotate it.

In your essay, you said “A work not worth highlighting, is one not worth reading.” Can I take this to mean you prefer a book to be “personalized” by your use? Can you elaborate on what you meant?

What I meant there was that there are millions and millions of books out there; anyone who is serious about their reading will soon realize that no matter how fast or how much you read, you cannot even begin to scratch the surface – even in English alone! You have to be very selective about what you read, even if you are reading dozens of books a year. So what I meant here is that if you are reading books that you don’t feel you must highlight – that you don’t feel have passages that speak to you and that you would want to see again sometime when you flip through that book in your library – then you are obviously reading the wrong books.

Do you have a favourite book from among your collection? Which, and why?

If I had to choose, it would be ‘The Life of Milarepa’ or the Mi-le Nam-thar in Tibetan. Milarepa is probably the most famous folk hero in Tibet, I think it says a lot about Tibetan culture and people that their greatest hero was a holy madman who went to live in caves and practice Buddhist meditation for his entire life. It is really a wonderful story of falling into darkness and climbing slowly back to the light, all in a single lifetime – it is probably the most encouraging biography I know of.

How did you hear about the National Book Collecting Contest, and how did you initially feel about your odds of placing?

My mother used to be a journalist and reads about three newspapers every day. She noticed the contest ad in one of them and encouraged me to apply when I was home over the holidays for Christmas last year. She suggested that very few people would enter and so my chances would be good and I agreed. But honestly after I sent out my essay I forgot all about it and didn’t really anticipate winning.

Any opinions on how to encourage other young people to take up collecting?


Keep your own collection and your kids will take after you. Our house was always full of books; my mother and father and older brother all read like maniacs. Growing up with all those books around you, and a kid’s natural curiosity, it’s inevitable you will find things you like and I think this is where my love of reading came from. I don’t know if you can instill that in someone later on in life, artificially as it were.

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You can read the interviews with this year’s 1st place winner  Justin Hanisch here, and 2nd place winner Gregory Robert Freeman here!

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