Richard Contiguglia

I shall try to reconstruct my long, uninterrupted membership of The Folio Society from my teenage years. If memory serves me correctly, I responded to an advertisement, probably in the Book Section of the Sunday New York Times, sometime in 1954 or 1955, when I was 17 years old and living with my family in Auburn, New York. I was impressed that all communications and deliveries emanated from London. Also, if I paid for at least 4 books in advance, – yes, that minimum has not changed over the years – shipping and postage were paid by the Society. I wish that I could remember the first book that I purchased, but I haven’t the patience to examine the publication dates of the hundreds of Folio books in my library. Furthermore, I fear that some of my earliest volumes may have been misplaced or lost, as I changed addresses countless times, with books sent to my parents’ home or kept in storage, before I finally settled in New York City in 1974.

I can never forget my returning to my parents’ home from a trip abroad to find an empty Folio box with no book in sight. I had ordered Diderot’s The Nun as one of my prepaid volumes. When I asked my Mother what had happened to the book, she confessed that she had read it and was so alarmed at what I would think of her for having read such a book (I guess that it was on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books) that she had disposed of it in the garbage. After telling her that I should never have been the wiser, had she simply returned it to its protective box, I ordered a replacement. I never could understand how my Italian Mother could have enjoyed reading Boccaccio’s Decameron, another of my Folio purchases, while relegating Diderot to the trash bin. I recall that some of my first books cost as little as $3 or $4. My first purchases gave me so much pleasure that I never let my membership in the Society lapse. In fact, I realize that my membership has been one of the few constants in my life. While my feelings about religion and political affiliation have changed over the years, my commitment to collecting and reading great books in beautiful editions, as all of the Folio Society’s have been, has never wavered.

What first interested me in the Society’s offerings were the collections of novels of great 19th Century English writers. I collected and read the complete works of Austen, the Brontes, Hardy and then Dickens, the last in chronological order. The Barsetshire novels of Trollope and the complete set of Conrad followed in due course.

My main indebtedness to The Folio Society has surely been the profound and subtle way in which it has directed my reading, and, consequently, my education, over the years. As a professional musician, specifically half of a duo-piano team with my twin brother, John, the main focus of my life has always been music. However, I credit the Folio Society with having given me a breadth of sensitivity and knowledge, beyond my professional needs, that only comes from reading great books. I wonder whether I would ever have read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, had the Folio Society not ‘encouraged’ me. The same could surely be said of the unabridged set of Richardson’s Clarissa, which I thoroughly enjoyed without needing to follow Leslie Steven’s advice to make it my sole companion on a long holiday and to pray for rain. I treasured the many English translations of foreign writers, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Mann, Stendhal, Hugo, Boccaccio, Cervantes and many others. I was charmed by the small pocket-size volumes of poetry of Andrew Marvell, Philip Sydney, John Donne and Rupert Brooke, which I could carry with me anywhere where reading poetry might be an unobtrusive accompaniment to my travels, on buses, trains or airplanes. Particularly valuable were the sets of books: Restoration Comedy (4 volumes) Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (3 volumes), Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (4 volumes), Tolstoy’s Collected Stories (3 volumes). During the ensuing years I even had the delightful surprise of discovering that I owned a Folio volume, Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, that had been illustrated, long before I knew her, by a now dear friend, the great botanical illustrator, Gillian Barlow.

While the above titles undoubtedly reflect the initial appeal to me of the Society’s offerings, I soon realized that my interest in Folio books extended far beyond fiction. I purchased many books on history (among them The Conquest of MexicoThe Fatal Shore, Macauley’s History of England and Mrs. Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans); science (Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and Origin of the Species); philosophy (works of Boethius and Marcus Aurelius) and art. Furthermore, I noticed over the years that the Society was paying more and more attention to writings on this side of the Atlantic. I treasure the recent publications of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

I would be remiss in not mentioning the incredible gifts that were bestowed on me simply for renewing my membership. Richard Fortey’s two magnificent volumes on Geology and Biology, The Earth and Life, were gifts that changed my understanding and appreciation of Science. I shall never forget his dictum, “Understanding is always a journey, never a destination.” Two gifts, The Folio Society Book of the 100 Greatest Paintings and Victoria Finlay’s Colour, were quickly ordered by me as gifts for a dear artist friend. I have introduced many friends to the Folio Society, some of whom may still be members.

I have to confess that my only disappointment over the years has been the failure of The Folio Society to publish a volume of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, at least one that I could afford. Since I am only 75 now, there is still time to remedy this neglect.

Even though The Folio Society has grown since those early days, when members had names, but no membership numbers, there is still a familial feeling about being a member. During the four years that I lived in London, while my brother and I were studying with the great British pianist, Dame Myra Hess, and, subsequently, when we returned to London to perform many times at the Wigmore and Queen Elizabeth Halls, I often visited the Society’s ‘home’ at 202 Great Suffolk Street, even purchasing several woodcuts, engravings and drawings from its subsidiary, Collector’s Corner, which no longer exists. Now I envy those who are able to attend gatherings that celebrate events of literary interest that I see advertised in the Society’s newsletters. I know that I could meet many new friends on such occasions.

If someone were to ask me today what is, and has been, special about being a member of the Folio Society, I would respond that the person that you see before you today would not be the same person that he is without his having been a member of The Folio Society for 58 years or, to quote a famous Englishman, George Moore, on the power of books, “I am what they made me.” Thank you, Folio Society!


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