Seafaring Literature Finds Home Port

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Sag Harbor resident Robert Hooke is a sculptor, gallery owner and former Navy captain, who has single handedly sailed across the Atlantic Ocean several times and participated in an around-the world trans-ocean sailing event in 1991.

But what many people may not know about “Captain” Hooke is that he is also a treasure hunter.

The John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor will now benefit from the bounty Hooke has accumulated over the last 30 years, in his quest to complete a collection of seafaring fiction that details not only the experience of being on the open water, but the history of literary art, writing and binding over the last two centuries. Hooke has donated his collection, in its entirety, to the library.

Hooke, whose family has had a home in Sag Harbor for the last 100 years, has owned his own residence here for 30 years, with brothers and sisters who call the region home. In 2009, Hooke and his brother David opened The Hooke Sculpture Gallery on Washington Street in Sag Harbor.

“I was raised on the water, spent my summers on the water,” said Hooke in an interview this week at the John Jermain Memorial Library. “So I am a person of the sea, and probably 30 years ago I started collecting books about the sea.”

Hooke chose to focus his collection on sea fiction, mostly because books like Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim” and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” stayed with him long after he had finished combing through their pages.

“The books were about not just the experience of being at sea, but the emotional impact and experiences that result from being out at sea on a boat – what happens to you mentally,” he said. “I mention this because you can see it in the evolution of sea fiction.”

The collection, 201 books, spans writing from the late 1700s to present day, starting with “The Adventure of Roderick Random,” in one volume, by Tobias George Smollett from 1781 to contemporary works by Patrick O’Brien, including “The Nutmeg of Consolation,” and Yves Bonavero’s 2006 book, “Something in the Sea.”

“What I wanted to do was put together a collection that ranges from the classics to the really obscure – books that are out of print, difficult to find, and there are some that no one has heard of,” said Hooke.

“There are some real gems here,” said Creedon.

“Finding these books has been a huge enjoyment for me,” said Hooke, who collected in London where he owned a gallery for a number of years, as well as in his travels around the world. “Most of these were collected prior to the internet, when I traveled a lot. If I had a couple hours during my travels I would look for a second hand bookstore and see what I could find. California was where I bought the books by Jack London.”

Hooke would stumbled upon works he was actively looking for, as well as literature found by surprise, while leafing through old books in musty secondhand stores, sometimes paying just $5 or $10 apiece when Hooke knew they would fetch far more if the seller knew their true value. First editions, and books in good condition were a top priority.

“What is special about this collection is it is a living thing,” said JJML Director Catherine Creedon. “We anticipate we will add to this collection throughout the years.”

“What you see in a spectrum of books that span over 200 years is the evolution of written prose, the general type of prose used and the way in which things were described, and also how storylines changed,” said Hooke, who noted much of the earliest works in the collection could be looked at as juvenile, “basically just a yarn.”

“A lot of the classics were remarketed as children’s books,” agreed Creedon. ““Lord Jim,” Treasure Island,” even “The Old Man and The Sea” is read by middle school students nowadays.”

The evolution of the marketing and commercialization of literature, the binding and the use of art, both on the cover and inside, is also apparent when taking in the collection as a whole, said Hooke.

A Rockwell Kent illustrated copy of “Moby Dick,” a pristine and lavishly bound and illustrated first edition from 1930s New York is one of Creedon’s favorites from the collection. Other favorites include John Steinbeck’s “Cup of Gold” from 1929, a paperback complete with a bodice-ripping pirate clutching a damsel, with its description, “a lusty buccaneer novel.” That paperback will do double duty at JJML, serving the seafaring collection, as well as the library’s Steinbeck collection.

For Hooke, a major passion was the study and collection of the Mutiny on the Bounty, a mutiny on the British Royal Navy ship the HMS Bounty in 1789 that has launched a series of books, songs and films. Hooke’s collection contains numerous volumes on the topic, and he plans as well to donate the three films made on the subject.

“The collection has real value over and above its amazing content in terms of what it tells us both about book history and our own history,” said Creedon.

The impetus to donate the collection to JJML came when Hooke said he realized he was all but done collecting.

“I am proud of it and I want other people to have the chance to experience it and use it as a resource,” he said.

Creedon, who was able to start archiving the collection with the aid of Sag Harbor native Andrea Meyer, sees this as the ideal first collection to have received since voters gave the library approval to construct an addition, which will include a temperature controlled history and archive room.

“I think as a village, our history is twined to the sea, so this is a wonderful collection for our archive,” she said, adding the library plans to host a number of exhibits around the collection.

“I am a Sag Harbor person,” said Hooke. “I thought it would be more important to this library than another, in the city, and besides, I plan to come and read some of the books here myself.”

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