After a life-long love affair with books, Ed Surovell learns to let go
The last thing Ed Surovell said he remembers reading about is the ocean. Two years ago, before the 82-year-old Ann Arbor book collector could no longer distinguish the words on a page, he recalls sitting comfortably nestled among the 10,000 books in his private collection and traveling from the Arctic to Australia and back again through "The Journals of Captain Cook."
“Books have been the way that I learned about the world,” he said.
Though now legally blind, for several hours each week, Surovell continues to sit in his library, surrounded by thousands of stories which for him are akin to old friends. “It’s a comfort,” he said, to know exactly where every book resides and what it contains.
- Drag queens to Michigan politicians: Leave us out of your election-year drama
- Michigan fireworks 2022: What you can (and can’t) do over the Fourth
Just by looking at the color of the cover, running his fingers down the binding and breathing in the stale scent of the ink, Surovell can tell that the book in front of him is Eleanor and Herbert Farjeon’s "Kings and Queens," a collection of children’s poems about 41 of England’s monarchs. He knows it was first published in the 1950s. He recalls that the first time he read it was when he was a college student at Columbia University. He knows several of the poems by heart.
“He knows the books in his collection inside out,” Paul Erickson, the director of the Clements Library in Ann Arbor, told Bridge Michigan. “He remembers everything about the books that he bought: who he bought them from, and how much they were and why he bought them.”
One would assume that Surovell has learned a lot from his collection over the decades. Now he’s learning something new: to let go.
Surovell is determined to write a satisfying last chapter for himself and his life’s work. He intends to spend the next several years finding new homes for nearly every book in his well-curated collection — a task he may be perfectly suited for after a career finding new homes for families in Ann Arbor, as a real estate broker who ran Edward Surovell Realtors for over 30 years.
Surovell has been amassing books since before he realized he was collecting. Growing up in Fairfax County, Va., he jumped right from reading A. A. Milne’s "Winnie the Pooh" as a child to his mother’s Russian literature collection by age 13: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov. He worked at a bookstore in high school before attending Columbia University from 1958 to 1962 and then the University of Michigan in 1968 to 1971. By the time he decided to move out of his first home in Ann Arbor to his current place of residence in Barton Hills Village on the other side of town, he had books in every single room in his house.
And he still does — except for the bathroom — he told Bridge. He attributes his bibliophilia to his mother, Florence Surovell, who did not collect books in the same way her son does, but still possessed thousands of well-loved volumes — enough to fill large shelves in almost every room throughout their house. And marrying fellow literary fanatic Natalie Surovell, the descendant of local bookseller and publishing mogul George Wahr, certainly didn’t curtail his obsession.
“I was destined to buy books,” Surovell said. “I couldn’t escape the things. I was born to them and married them. They come whispering to me in the middle of the night.”
Surovell says when he walks into his library, he can hear a low hum emanating from the room, as if there’s an on-going conversation between the collector and the collection about the places he’s been and the people he’s met throughout the past 40 years.
But now, because of a degenerative eye disorder, Surovell has not been able to read his beloved books for several years. When he opens a volume, “It's like you have a page and somebody spilled milk all over,” he said.
In the past year, he has donated about 400 books to local Ann Arbor libraries, rare volumes appraised at just less than $300,000. Surovell said it is important “the books go where they belong.” He wants to personally pass the books on while he can meet with scholars and librarians to explain the history behind each text.
“[The books are] going to leave the house under one of two circumstances,” Surovell said. “Only in one of them do I get to give them away, know where they're going and help the next owner understand them and work with them.”
Of the about 10,000 volumes in his home, there are only about two dozen books he intends to keep for the rest of his life, he said, including a couple from his mother’s library that still contain her personal “bookplate” printed on the front end pages.
Surovell’s mother died when she was 84, just two years older than he is now, leaving her entire library behind. When she was gone, Surovell, his brother and his nephew each took an armful. As for what happened to the rest, Surovell does not know.
“My mother's books weren't rare; they were just wonderful,” Surovell said.
Unlike his mother’s library, some of the books in Surovell’s collection are the only known physical copy in the world, including an 1816 book of the laws in place in Michigan before it became a state in 1837 referred to as the “Cass Code” — a book he spent nearly $10,000 to procure. Despite the academic value of books like these, Surovell told Bridge that if he does not begin relocating his texts now, he fears the same thing happening to his books as his mother’s.
“Households get dispersed and books — some of them go to the Salvation Army, some go to Goodwill,” Surovell said. “There are book dealers who would be delighted to come and bring a U-Haul- and pack up everything in this house and take it back and spend two years sorting stuff on cataloging and reselling it.”
But donating a giant collection like Surovell’s is more involved than one might think. Academic libraries need the literary philanthropist to identify basic information about each book — the title, author, year and plate of publication and the language the text is written in — before it is donated. Then the books have to be sent to one of the less than 150 “rare books appraisers” scattered throughout the U.S. before they can be offered as a donation to a library.
That’s why Surovell hired Elizabeth Zerwekh, a private librarian and archivist, to help him identify and catalog all of the books in his collection. They began the process last summer, but it has progressed slowly from there, Surovell said. Rather than donating individual texts at random, Surovell wants to donate entire hundred-book sub-collections all at once. Surovell has spent over 40 years bringing certain kinds of books together across time and space to sit next to each other on his shelf — and he wants them to stay together.
Zerwekh is currently working on cataloging seven of Surovell’s different sub-collections before they can be donated. At the rate they’re working, it could take Surovell and Zerwekh over 20 years to donate all of the books in his collection. Surovell said any books that the pair are not able to give away before his death will be left to his wife and family.
“I can’t even predict (how long it is going to take) because he wants to donate collections,” Zerwekh said. “We’re just taking one step at a time. We haven’t talked big picture. We’re talking little picture.”
The books they have donated thus far belong to two key collections: Michigan plat books and native language books. Both collections have gone to the William L. Clements Library, a library associated with the University of Michigan that specializes in American History from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Somewhere between 20 and 25 native languages filled the pages of Surovell’s native language collection — predominantly various dialects of the Ojibwe language, spoken by indigenous people throughout the Great Lakes region. The number of books written in Ojibwe languages is already limited.
“The Native American books were probably one of the smaller collections, less than 400 [books],” Surovell said. “But that meant that it was the biggest collection in the state of Michigan.”
Clements officials say they are excited to add Surovell’s native language texts to their collection of materials related to indigenous culture. The library is also looking forward to finding a use for the other collection of books that Surovell has donated so far: over 25 of his Michigan plat books. Plat books contain maps delineating land ownership throughout neighborhoods.
“His primary concern was making sure that the collection would go to a place that could care for it and make use of it and continue to build it as well,” Emiko Hastings, the curator of books and digital projects librarian at the Clements, said.
The book-collector-turned-philanthropist said his work is far from over. There are cardboard boxes brimming with books in the garage and a basement full of more bookshelves — it all has to go. The next collection to be donated is Surovell’s over 200-book collection comprising materials printed at Dr. Alvin Wood Chase’s Steam Printing House. The printing house operated in Ann Arbor from 1864 until 1868, producing some of the oldest printed materials in the city.
Surovell is more than happy to regale listeners with stories of each of the books printed at Dr. Chase’s, but his favorite is one of the doctor’s own books: "Dr. Chase's Recipes," or "Information for Everybody." A self-help book printed in Ann Arbor in 1865, it was the most widely sold book in the United States after the Bible at the time.
Jay Platt, the owner of Westside Books in Ann Arbor which has been one of Surovell’s favorite places to shop for used books since it opened in 1975, said he has aided in Surovell’s collection of books printed at Dr. Chase’s Steam Printing House. Platt said Surovell does not just own one original copy of Dr. Chase’s Recipes — he owns at least three.
“Ed’s what we call a completist, he’ll buy everything and sometimes multiple copies of the same book,” Platt said.
Though it is challenging to deconstruct a literary empire he spent years building, Surovell is learning to enjoy the process of donating almost as much as he enjoyed collecting. Zerwekh said the library is constantly filled with laughter and stories as Surovell revisits some of his texts for the first time in years.
“It's a labor of love,” Zerwekh said. “We have a good time doing it. He has so many stories. It could be a tedious task, but it's not. It's sort of amazing to me.”
Still, there is a certain melancholy to it, Surovell acknowledged. He has not been able to drive for 14 years and hates having to rely on someone else to help him navigate the world. But in his library, he knows exactly where everything is.
There, he can hold a letter written by philosopher and jurist Franz Lieber during the Civil War and be transported through time — to a 19th century battlefield, to the moment he first learned who Lieber was, to the moment Surovell acquired the letter, to the moment he filed it in his library.
“I don't believe that inanimate objects have a life of their own,” Surovell said. “But they have a spirit of their own.”
A collection, he said, is only notable because of the individual who brought together a certain assemblage of things and gave them meaning. When the collector is no longer there to interpret the “spirit” of their objects, the collection risks falling into the indistinguishable ruins of a departed, passionate soul.
“The minute the collector dies, the books die too,” Surovell told Bridge. “Think of a collection, the things you own: your closet full of clothes, jewelry. You're the glue to that particular collection. It's all important to you. You selected it. It represents you. But without you, it's just a pile of metal and glass.”
We’ve been there for you with daily Michigan COVID-19 news; reporting on the emergence of the virus, daily numbers with our tracker and dashboard, exploding unemployment, and we finally were able to report on mass vaccine distribution. We report because the news impacts all of us. Will you please support our nonprofit newsroom?