Collecting stories from afar: undergraduate book collecting prize winners announced

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Harvard College sophomore Wilder Wohns grew up in Tacoma, Wash. with a globe in his bedroom — a hand-me-down from his brothers. To him, its most striking location was the country that stretched from Eastern Europe to the Pacific: the vast stretch of land labeled “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”

Wohns’ interest in Asia led to an infatuation with Russia and the former Soviet Union. For his birthday, he requested The Collected Works of Lenin; the Soviet national anthem topped his “most played” song list. As his captivation grew, so did his collection of related books. Those books, and Wohns’ essay about what they mean to him, earned him first place for the 2014 Visiting Committee Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting.

“I was fascinated by both the cities with exotic names and the spaces with no names at all,” Wohns wrote in his entry for the competition. “In a sense, my collection is a grand attempt to understand the mystery of those maps.”

Blank on the Map by Eric Shipton is Wohn’s favorite book and inspired the name for his collection, Blank on My Map: Unraveling Asia’s Mystique. In the book, Shipton describes exploring the Karakorum mountains between Pakistan, India and China and the challenge of inspecting remote places. “It is precisely those passions that Shipton and I share,” said Wohns. “The desire to explore, to go to the extreme places of the earth, and to learn who and what is there motivates my collecting.”

This year’s other winners reflect similar worldliness.