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Unlimited Editions

A collector’s obsession with award-winning books. NMA nominee: Arts & Entertainment, Still-life Photography

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• 4,158 words

Online Only: To see a photo gallery of John Meier’s book collection, visit our online selection here.In September 2004, during her visit to Vancouver, then governor general of Canada Adrienne Clarkson made an unpublicized stop in a leafy, affluent suburb in the outlying southern reaches of the city. She was there to see a book collector named John Meier. Clarkson didn’t particularly know the American-born Meier, nor was he a public figure of any kind, although he’d had a colourful childhood. His father, John Meier Sr., was Howard Hughes’s scientific adviser and fled the US for Canada, claiming threats to his life after the billionaire’s death, then settled in this suburb in 1972. John Meier Jr. himself had had an eclectic career to that point: medical supplies entrepreneur, marketing consultant, real estate agent, and specialty bookseller. At the time Clarkson visited, he was forty-eight, single, and working out of an apartment in his parent’s house.

Meier had known that Clarkson might visit. He’d written a letter to invite her and received a polite and positive response. There had even been a call from Clarkson’s rcmp security detail two weeks before, sounding oddly as if they were sitting in a van out front, asking to confirm his address, the appearance of the house, the makes and models of cars in his driveway. Still, Meier hadn’t allowed himself to believe it until the limo pulled up. At that moment — as she stepped out onto the wet asphalt, an umbrella unfurled to protect her from the seasonal rains, and strode across the driveway where he had played as a kid — Meier finally had to accept that Adrienne Clarkson had indeed taken the time to drive forty minutes south of the city to look at the jewel of his extensive book collection.

And that jewel was a surprising one. Not a single volume but hundreds of volumes, pristine first editions, unusual association copies, and rare advance states, most signed by their respective authors. It was certainly surprising that Meier had managed to collect all these books in one place. But it was arguably more surprising that Clarkson had never seen such a collection, that Rideau Hall didn’t have one of its own. Nestled into the bookshelves lining the walls of the low-ceilinged basement suite, with its fully drawn blackout curtains and dim UV-free lights, was nothing less than every Governor General’s Award winner in English-language fiction since the 1936 inception of the prize.

The governor general, with her high-profile schedule, had precisely one hour for John Meier, he had been informed by security. Clarkson — sipping tea, asking questions, and leafing through this history of Canadian letters — stayed for two and a half. Meier told her collecting stories, anecdotes about the authors. He also spoke about his latest project, writing and publishing a descriptive bibliography of the collection covering the first seventy years of the prize. For those unfamiliar with these most bookish of books, these catalogues of minute publishing information, that undertaking is best understood as near-Sisyphean. Meier had set out to find all the publishing information for each title, scattered as that data would be through library and publishers’ archives across the English-speaking world.

“A fantastically huge job,” Eric Swanick, the head of special collections at Simon Fraser University and himself a bibliographer, told me. “A work of brass and significance,” echoed Carl Spadoni, the research collections librarian at McMaster University. This Clarkson must have sensed. At the close of her visit, she asked Meier who was supporting him in this unprecedented undertaking. What publisher? What public funding body? The Canada Council, perhaps? To which Meier responded, “No one really seems interested in helping. So I’m just doing it myself.”

I’d known Meier for a dozen years at that point, and if I understood anything about the man it was that he was single-minded in his attention to projects and a committed individualist. When I’d first met him, he was the alpha neighbour of our old walk-up apartment building on South Granville, Vancouver. Our Kramer, if you will. If you traced lines from every suite in the building to every other suite where the occupant knew somebody, they would have converged in a dense smudge at Meier’s place. Everybody knew him. And like most people for whom this holds true, it was hard not to know him.

Meier is tall, thin, outgoing, and conversational across an eccentric range of topics. His war with our landlord was a favourite, a three-year feud that began with some paint damage done to Meier’s vintage Ford Granada in the parking lot. But he was also conversant in real estate, the stock market, animal husbandry, wilderness survival techniques, and the possibility of developing a good deet-free mosquito repellent. There were billions in that one if you hit on the right formula, apparently. Meier once convinced the entomology lab at Simon Fraser University to help him test his homemade recipes; he sat there for an afternoon, his arms deep inside mesh cages of hungry female mosquitoes.

But Meier’s books, strangely, I discovered more or less by accident. We’d been talking about his most recent venture — a wrist-mounted hearing device for the profoundly deaf — when he offered to show me a prototype of the gizmo. I accepted, in part curious what his apartment might look like. The place was stacked with boxes, as if he had only ever gotten around to half moving in.

And then I saw them, looming in the grainy half-light. Custom-built glass-front bookcases from floor to ceiling along every available wall, every shelf full, the colours of a thousand spines seeming to rustle in the darkness. And in the same instant that I understood the lights were low to protect the volumes from fading, I understood further that these were not merely books, but collected books. Books that had been searched for, bought, wrapped individually in clear plastic sleeves. Books that you held gingerly, marvelling that they could be held at all. Galley proofs of The Color Purple. An advance review copy of A Confederacy of Dunces. A first edition of Geek Love, signed by Katherine Dunn to her editor. Advance review copies of both Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five. I recall Meier considering the long shelf devoted to Irving for a moment — Meier loved John Irving — before pulling out a mint-condition copy of The Hotel New Hampshire, an unusual early-state shot from the manuscript. Inside was a slip of paper from the publisher indicating that the book had been given to Robertson Davies. A moment later, I was holding Tom Robbins’s Another Roadside Attraction, the original Doubleday & Company file copy. Meier had a galley of that one, too — an ultra-rare Cerlox-bound version, the very first setting of the type.

“Where did you get this? ” I remember asking.

“Same thing Robbins wanted to know when he signed it,” Meier said brightly. “He told me he had no firsts left at all, because he’d given them to girls to get laid.”

I never heard where the Robbins came from. But as the years went by, Meier told me enough about his collecting and bookselling that I can now imagine how the volume was discovered. He was probably on his hands and knees in a warehouse in rural New York, going through boxes of books, and he found it, which was how he found the extra-fine first edition of Joyce Carol Oates’s On Boxing, which my wife then bought from him for my thirty-fifth birthday. Or maybe it had been like the time he was camping outside Edmonton — participating in a cold-weather survival training course (another hobby) — and he got the book bug, dropped everything, drove into the city, found a second-hand bookstore, and came across a bibliography on the work of master bookbinder Pierre Ouvrard, who bound the presentation copies used at the Governor General’s Awards.

That bibliography — with its pictures and descriptions of the leather volumes given as gifts to the winning authors — didn’t finally shape the GG project in Meier’s mind. Its inception must be traced to 1995, when the American-born Meier chose to become a Canadian citizen. His family roots in the US were highly controversial, as detailed in a book published that same year. Age of Secrets: The Conspiracy That Toppled Richard Nixon and the Hidden Death of Howard Hughes was written by Vancouver Sun reporter Gerald Bellett with the help of John Meier Sr.

The conspiracy of the title refers to a $1-million bribe paid by Meier’s boss, Howard Hughes, to Richard Nixon in March 1969. In the book, John Meier Sr. claims to have witnessed the transaction at an airport hotel in Miami, where he had accompanied Ken Wright, the head of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. At the hotel, he alleges, Wright gave Nixon associate Bebe Rebozo a suitcase with $1 million in cash, a payment intended to secure Nixon’s support in cancelling Atomic Energy Commission testing in Nevada, which Hughes opposed. But perhaps most intriguingly, Meier claims in the book that it was lingering evidence of this bribe that the famous “plumbers” were later sent in to retrieve from the Watergate Hotel, to prevent its use by the Democrats in sinking Nixon’s re-election campaign.

Against this backdrop, Meier had become a Canadian citizen. Simultaneously, he had been casting around for new approaches to the increasingly popular book collecting business. Prices of his favourite American authors had already been driven through the roof. “Everybody was chasing the same highlights,” he told me. “Because of my age, I grew up loving Irving, Vonnegut, Kesey, Robert Stone, Joseph Heller. But these books were starting to become very valuable. Catcher in the Rye was a $10,000 book!”

As early as 1979, a book had been published devoted to the question of what else might be collected: Collectible Books: Some New Paths, by Jean Peters. As a result, sales of photography and film books and catalogues had picked up. Meier decided to look at Canadian books and awards, considering several, including the Giller Prize, which he rejected as too young to be much of a challenge. But when he looked at the Governor General’s Awards, he realized he had found his focus. They stretched back to 1936, were quintessentially Canadian, and, since Rideau Hall’s own collection had been denuded over the years as books were given away as gifts, he was unlikely to be duplicating anybody else’s previous efforts. His quest was part tribute to Canada, part pure collecting challenge.

Meier was now on the hunt for sixty-eight titles (the prize wasn’t awarded in 1965 or 1967). Not just first editions. Not just first editions that met his obsessively high standards. (“You spend twenty years buying bargains,” Meier says, “you end up with a bargain collection. I’m fanatical about condition.” ) He decided he would collect first editions of all English versions — Canadian, UK, and American. Plus he would track down all the available advance states for each title: pages, bound galleys, review copies. This undertaking would be daunting in the case of sixty-eight famous books, but many of the titles were not remembered at all outside literary circles and not actively traded as a result.

“People told me flat out I’d never find Bertram Brooker’s book,” Meier told me, referring to the award’s first winner, the novel Think of the Earth. This offers an excellent illustration of what happens when Meier is told he can’t do something. He set himself a twelve-month deadline to find a book he’d never seen before. At month eleven, he managed to buy Brooker’s personal reading copy from the author’s grandson, complete with scribbled margin notes. “The book wasn’t for sale,” Meier emphasized. “I had to convince him. I phoned every couple of weeks for six months.”

I still hadn’t seen any of the new collection at that point. My wife and I had moved in the meantime. So did Meier, who finally lost his war with the landlord. Four straight victories at the residential tenancy office, and he was evicted on a loophole. He retreated to his parents’ house, managing to sound upbeat about it in our conversations. Only on moving day did he discover that his bookshelves — custom made for the nine-foot ceilings of our old building — did not fit his childhood basement and had to be replaced with shelves from ikea.

In the summer of 2006, two years after Adrienne Clarkson’s visit, I finally made the trip south of the city. I knew I had the right house when I spotted the car. Protected under a rain shield, Meier’s vehicular obsession since selling the Granada has been a gleaming white mid-1980s bmw 535 that had just earned 287 out of 300 points at a vintage auto show. A car almost thirty years old and only a handful of demerit points off factory new. “The tool kit,” Meier explained, shaking his head. “They docked me points for having replacement tools in the tool kit.”

He led the way inside, through the stone foyer, past his father’s office. Then we were in his apartment, under ceilings that hung just low enough to remind me of a long passage of time, his bedroom in the same converted garage he’d slept in as a teenager. “Surreal, isn’t it? ” he said with a laugh.

We moved down the long room toward the books, and I had a similar reaction to the one I remember from years before: a certain hush imposed by the volumes themselves, by their density, the way they absorbed sound and drew the eye. But awe, too, this stemming from a sense of the years of work involved. The thousands of miles Meier had logged to bookstores in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, and Toronto. The buying trips through the eastern United States. Always on the hunt and doing whatever it took. On a trip to New York in the middle of a brutal heat wave the year before, he found himself at an upstate dealer who gave him the key to a storeroom normally off limits to the public. Eight feet wide and fifty feet long and lined with shelves, “it was like a sauna,” Meier recalled. But he had five hours worth of searching ahead of him, so he locked himself in, stripped naked, and went at it.

“Hey, it was really hot,” Meier said. “I don’t mess around.” Then: “Don’t write that. Okay, go ahead. I mean, it’s just I realize I’m a bit eccentric, but I don’t want people thinking I’m insane.” No GG winner emerged from the steaming heat, but Meier came away with a first edition of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and galleys of Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes. Not bad.

We turned back to the books. Meier’s shelves stretched down each wall, still monkishly protected in partial darkness. The section devoted to the GG winners constituted only a portion of this total, but each volume had the aura of extreme rarity about it. His copy of the 1943 winner, The Pied Piper of Dipper Creek, by Thomas Raddall, was a Canadian first edition. He also had the 1939 UK true first, virtually every other copy of which was destroyed in a warehouse during a German air raid. His copy of the renowned 1945 winner, Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, was likewise obscurely one-off. It contains a note addressed to MacLennan’s friend, the poet Edward Steese: “I’m still teaching writing,” the letter reads, ” . . . and I have a longish novel called Two Solitudes due to appear in New York in January.”

“He’s talking about the writing of the book!” Meier told me, holding the letter in trembling fingers. “Before it was published!” Then he showed me the rare UK first of the same book with MacLennan’s name misspelled on the spine.

And more. His edition of The Tin Flute, for which Gabrielle Roy won the award in 1947, was signed by the elusive writer. Rare. His copy of The Loved and the Lost, by Morley Callaghan, winner in 1951, had an inscription from Callaghan about the eight publishers who rejected the book before it was accepted by Macmillan. Very rare. He thought his best copy of the controversial 1954 winner, The Fall of a Titan, by Russian defector Igor Gouzenko, had to be either the one-off bound galley he found . . . or maybe it was his other one-off copy, which Gouzenko inscribed to his own publisher in a personal letter.

“This is the guy who started the Cold War!” Meier exclaimed. “Association copies like that just really turn my crank somehow.”

Indeed. Meier had the GG prize ceremony presentation copy of Douglas LePan’s The Deserter (the 1964 winner), signed by then governor general Georges Vanier; Al Purdy’s copy of Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades (1968); and Douglas LePan’s copy of The Manticore (1972), by Robertson Davies. One of Meier’s copies of The Diviners (1974) was originally given to the organist of the Lakefield, Ontario, church attended by Margaret Laurence. And his The Handmaid’s Tale, which won in 1985, was a copy its author, Margaret Atwood, inscribed to two-time GG poetry award winner Gwendolyn MacEwen.

Meier had so much material on those shelves that would have been intensely personal to the author and the person to whom the book had originally been given, I wondered how other writers might feel about its presence here. Some had pointedly refused to co-operate. Dave Godfrey, whose book The New Ancestors won in 1970 (Meier’s copy is inscribed to Godfrey’s favourite librarian), wouldn’t return his phone calls. Rohinton Mistry refused to sign his books at all, seemingly perplexed by Meier’s possession of a UK galley of Such a Long Journey with a cover not approved for release. But Mistry also refused to sign Meier’s mother’s copy (on Mother’s Day, no less), which really got Meier going. He took the issue up the chain of command to Doug Gibson, then president of McClelland & Stewart. Meier got the final brush-off. He hasn’t forgotten.

“I had two boxes of books for signature,” he fumed. “Tell me how many booksellers in Vancouver are buying two boxes of books with guaranteed no returns — let alone how many booksellers working out of their parents’ basement in their underwear!”

We took a break for lunch. Despite the collection being complete to date, frustrations had been mounting on the other side of Meier’s GG project. He’d compiled 200 pages of the bibliography and financed trips out of his own pocket to the archives at the National Library, McGill University, the University of Calgary; and the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, St. Michael’s College, and Victoria College, all at the University of Toronto. He still needed to get to the British Library and the Victoria and Albert Museum, he told me, where they had a few jackets he hadn’t yet managed to inspect. Then he needed to get to the University of Edinburgh, to the Thomas Nelson archives. Then back to New York and on to the Houghton Mifflin archives at Harvard. “It’s getting a little hard on the body,” he said, making turkey sandwiches and cutting up celery sticks. “I’m turning fifty here in a couple of months, and I’m staying at youth hostels. Thirty-five bucks a night in a room full of people.”

In the meantime, he’d given up his real estate licence. And since he’d been focusing on the GG collection, his bookselling business had slowed down. “I may have to sell some high-end titles,” he told me, sitting down at the small table in his kitchen. “I have a copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany, signed. That’s, like, one of 250 books.”

“You’re not going to sell an Irving,” I said, incredulous, knowing how much that author’s work meant to him.

“Oh, I have another one in my personal collection,” he said, taking a bite of his sandwich. “This is from stock. And I thought I might sell some Ken Kesey. People like Kesey.”

A necessary measure, given that everyone else he could think of asking for assistance had turned him down. The Canada Council seemed unsure what to do with him; the chair of the council, Karen Kain, wrote back and suggested he contact McClelland & Stewart. Meier duly wrote the venerable publishing house, publisher of no fewer than eighteen GG winners. He waited a few months then followed up in typical style with a letter to the president. That at least generated a response: a flat rejection. Heritage Canada was no help. Meier had also written to the new governor general, Michaëlle Jean, hoping to capitalize on the goodwill of the last one. No response.

Maybe he’d raise the money with that long-sought mosquito repellent formula, I suggested, noticing a vial of catnip oil on the table, nestled among Meier’s pill bottles.

Maybe. He was planning to experiment with a combination of catnip oil and pine sap he’d scraped off trees at Boundary Bay. He showed me the sticky slabs he’d stored in large zip-lock bags. It was a formula inspired by Woodcraft and Camping, by the legendary nineteenth-century frontiersman Nessmuk (George Sears), a book he’d become interested in around the same time he’d started looking into elephant toenails.

“Elephant what?”

Toenails. He took me into the next room to show me a brand new collecting obsession: pocket knives, essentially, but with very broad blades. They used a nineteenth-century English design, originally intended for cutting rope. He’d been devouring information on these knives and had picked two makers to collect: Case and Cattaraugus. “I tend not to do things without quite a lot of research,” he mused. “Like with the flashlights.”

I looked over at him with a grin, but he missed it.

“Yeah, I’ve been buying flashlights lately. I’m addicted to them. Oh, you gotta see this one. It’ll floor you. I keep it by my bedside.”

It had lithium batteries and sixty-five lumens of power. Since I knew nothing about flashlights, I shone it directly onto the page of my notebook, completely blinding myself.

The seventieth anniversary of the Governor General’s Awards was November 21, 2006. Meier had confessed a tiny, slender private hope that he might be invited to the ceremony for the announcement of the book that completes his collection. But true to personality, he was not expecting anything from anybody. He went on the website first thing that morning and read that Peter Behrens’s The Law of Dreams had won. Meier had two boxes ordered before breakfast. It was just days after his fiftieth birthday.

“Belated happy birthday,” I said when I called. “What’d you give yourself?”

He’d had his fortune told by a Toronto-based seer he’d tracked down after extensive research. “She’s had some major predictions come true. She’s good.” And what she told him reassured him. She quite distinctly saw Meier sitting in front of a computer a lot next year, which he thought was a good sign he was going to make progress on the bibliography.

Meanwhile, the Owen Meany didn’t make the reserve price on eBay, and Michaëlle Jean still hasn’t contacted him. But he has received grant money from the Bibliographical Society of America. Meier is alive to twin ironies: that the commemoration of this Canadian literary record might well be made possible by American funds; and that he is being sustained in this moment of need not by the nation to which he is paying tribute, but by the one his family fled.

No time to ponder the subtleties, however. He has a bibliography to write. And it’s not as if the collection doesn’t require his ongoing attention. He has the seven-decade set, true, and material that no other collector would ever find. Even Rideau Hall — which had gamely tried to rebuild the collection in the final days of Adrienne Clarkson’s tenure — hasn’t managed to acquire all of the first editions. They don’t even have all the book jackets. “It’s basically a good reading collection,” Meier told me.

Faint praise from the master who checks twenty-two online book search engines daily for copies that might enhance the collection. “The hunt is never over,” he said. “I’m always looking for more copies, better copies, rare advance states.” There was a long pause before Meier mused aloud: “And then, of course, there’s the poetry.”

Really? Is he seriously going to start collecting the Governor General’s Award winners in poetry, too? Another seventy-odd titles?

Meier hasn’t decided yet. He’s mulling it over.

Timothy Taylor earned a CBC Bookie Award for his latest novel, The Blue Light Project.