A Letter from America XXIII: The New Hill Pacific Voyages, and San Diego (April)

From the Rare Book Review

One of the bright spots in the book world year, for those of us who live in cold climates, is the California Book Fair. After a particularly nasty January, the prospect of sunny and sixty is pretty exciting. Having shoveled my car out of the driveway one morning, I found myself the next day having lunch on a porch overlooking the vast Pacific. There was no need for wild surmise, and it was a long way from Darien ( Connecticut , that is). This would do I thought, munching on my fish taco.

Besides the book fair, it was the vast Pacific which motivated my trip, or more correctly books about the v. P. I was on my way to the University of California at San Diego for the publication party of the new edition of the Hill Collection of Pacific Voyages, which I have just published on behalf of UCSD, in conjunction with Hordern House of Sydney , Australia , on the other side of the v. P. Not having enough ways to torture myself, I have undertaken publishing several reference works in recent years. This is an exercise similar to renovating a house. Anyone who does it usually swears they will never do it again, but after awhile the pain subsides and it seems as if it will be amusing again.

Kenneth Hill, who died several years ago, was one of the great book collectors of recent decades in the United States . At various points he collected Pacific Voyages, Western Americana , ornithology, meteorology, and simply books which interested him. His son Jonathan, the distinguished dealer in history of science and the like, has written a charming memoir of his father’s collecting career which appears as an introduction to the new edition. Ken was in many ways an ideal collector; he was passionate about his areas of interest, loved to buy books, liked the people who sold them (a most admirable trait), and disposed of them to good effect to worthy institutions, which he also supported through gifts and work on their behalf. Foremost among these benefactions was his gift of his collection of Pacific Voyages to UCSD, beginning in 1974.

Also beginning in 1974, UCSD published a catalogue of the Hill Collection, which has become a standard reference in the field. Besides now being out of print, the catalogue had various problems; there were inconsistencies of style, three different alphabets, and no numbering of entries. Of course, it did not contain all of the books acquired in the last twenty years. When Ken Hill was still alive I proposed the idea of a new edition to him, which he enthusiastically supported. We then undertook the toilsome task of producing the new edition, led by Joseph Bray of UCSD, who wrote the new entries, and Susan Imhoff in my office, who did the general editing and produced the new indexes. The new Hill has 1937 entries, all in one sturdy 800-page volume. Since the first edition has been very difficult to obtain, it now makes this standard reference available in a new and vastly improved version. Ken included much of his Western Americana and Californiana in his gifts, and all of this material appears in the Hill Catalogue as well, making it a doubly useful reference.

The campus and library of UCSD are quite extraordinary. Now the third largest in the California system, the campus sits high above the v. P. just north of La Jolla , a former artist colony turned picturesque tourist trap which is still well worth a visit. There are many places to consume that lunch with the fabulous view. We went by the aquarium at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute, just next door; I recommend a visit to anyone who wants to see an extraordinary display of the world’s fishes or to pre-plan their sushi dinner. The campus is vast and sprawling, with new buildings sprouting. Amidst this it is a surprise for any first time visitor to come upon the main library, donated by Dr. Seuss, no less (a La Jolla native). It rises, a vast inverted glass pyramid like a landing spacecraft, a nightmare of library design only surpassed by the Bibliotheque Nationale. The library collections surpassed its capacity long ago, but the additions are all underground (UCSD just acquired its three millionth volume). Within this bizarre carapace the Special Collections is an island of calm, with rich holdings beyond the Pacific Voyages and the Hill meteorology collection, also here.  I recommend the Collections, and their catalogue, to anyone interested in Pacific Voyages.

– William S. Reese