It’s difficult to say if Mark Dimunation is better at curating rare books or telling stories about them. Probably not possible to make the call, actually.
He’s displayed both abilities in person, in print, onstage and on television since he was appointed chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library — the largest collection of rare books in North America — a quarter of a century ago, in 1998.
And both were on display for a final time last week during an open house displaying some of the sparkling finds the division has acquired under his tenure. Dimunation, 70, who is retiring this week, was seated at the front of the Rare Book reading room, greeting a stream of well-wishers from across the Library and the antiquarian community.
“Starting at the LOC and buying books was a little bit daunting, because there’s a million books here,” he said, referring to the section’s holdings. “We cover everything from cuneiform tablets and medieval manuscripts all the way up to the 21st century. So, what do you buy in your first week is a very good question.”
One of the answers: “The Word Returned,” a 1996 artist book by Ken Campbell, the famed British printer who passed away last year. Campbell became regarded as one of the most influential book artists of the century, and the Library is one of the few institutions in the world with a complete run of his works.
Spread across the reading room — classical architecture, high ceilings, a chandelier, study tables set with small lamps, the room filled with murmurs and conversations — were more than 100 other books and printed material gathered in Dimunation’s tenure, showcasing the Library’s sweep of culture and history.
On this table, a first edition of Galileo’s “Starry Messenger,” published in 1610, the key work by the world-changing Italian astronomer, acquired by the Library in 2008. Here’s a flavor of Dimunation’s narrative style, explaining the book’s significance at a forum with the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden: “At dusk on November 30, 1609, Galileo shifted his telescope in the direction of the moon …”
There, that’s it, the Dimunation Anecdote: A startlingly specific scene, a famed personality at the moment of discovery … and, voila, centuries later, the very book, in the creator’s hand, right in front of you.
Another delightful acquisition lies on a nearby table: A first edition of Edward Gorey’s charmingly sinister “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” a 1963 series of dark pen-and-ink sketches that walked readers through the alphabet by means of soon-to-be deceased children. The book is open to one of its most famous pages: “N is for Neville who died of Ennui.” The book’s page, part of a Gorey collection acquired in 2014, showed hapless little Neville, only his black-dot eyes and top of his head visible above the windowsill, gazing at a world of gray. It’s sad and funny and strange and surreal all at once.
In between, and spread across the hall to the Rosenwald reading room, were a constellation of books and papers from across the centuries, including 19th-century children’s books that doubled as pop-up theaters, the 20th-century Harlem Renaissance and art books made of almost everything, including leather and steel. Joan Miró’s 32-foot-long scroll, “Makemono” was there, but only partially unrolled.
Dimunation, a Minnesota native, grew up in a Ukrainian household, imbued with the culture of his immigrant grandparents. He was fascinated with maps, history and the larger world.
After getting his master’s degree in history from the University of California, Berkeley, his professional niche became 18th- and 19th-century English and American printing. He came to the Library from Cornell University.
Since then, he’s often been one of the more public faces of the Library. He’s taught seminars at the Rare Book School, appeared on several of the episodes of the History Channel’s “Hidden Treasures at the Library of Congress,” delivered dozens of lectures at museums and book events and written for publication often, including this blog.
He has also hosted dozens, if not hundreds, of show-and-tell events for Library guests. When actor, magician and author Neil Patrick Harris appeared at a 2019 National Book Festival Presents event, Dimunation wowed him by presenting a copy of some of the Library’s Houdini collection.
Other prominent guests visited in more low-key settings. At the open house, he regaled a small crowd with the story of the time Irish actor Pierce Brosnan came through the division. Dimunation, knowing his audience, set out a rare copy of “Ulysses,” by fellow Irishman James Joyce, at a side table. Brosnan instantly recognized the copy in its rare blue cover and, transfixed, asked to see it.
The one-time James Bond star paged through it for a moment and, without looking up, “suddenly starts reading in this Irish brogue,” Dimunation recounted. “We’re sitting there for a good 10 minutes, while he read Joyce, and you’re just transfixed.”
It’s those kind of moments, Dimunation said, that makes the Library an endlessly fascinating place. You never know who, or what, you’ll find.
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