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Akin, William S. (1894-) | Archival Collections at Wheaton College

Name: Akin, William S. (1894-)


Historical Note: William S. Akin once said "Whenever I see a new rare or unusual book, I have sleepless nights until I possess it." Thanks to Akin's "gentle madness," Wheaton College boasts a splendid collection of rare and first editions. But first, Bill Akin's story... His father, William James Akin, longtime member of Chicago's Union Club and on staff at the Chicago Daily News, was a lover of classical literature who passed his bibliomania to his son. At 14, Bill Akin read Beauties of Johnson as "penance for his sins." During these years he also served as an acolyte at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Evanston under Dr. George Craig Stewart's rectorship. At 16, Akin obtained employment in a bookstore. Finishing school, he entered the newspaper business like his father, first copy editing then reporting for the InterOcean, an early Chicago newspaper, and the Chicago Tribune. Later he worked as an advertiser's representative at the Chicago Daily News. Once, while staying at a San Antonio hotel, Akin heard guitar music in the next room. He knocked on the door and, invited in, discovered Carl Sandburg, his fellow Chicago Daily News colleague, sitting on the bed with his shoes off, strumming and singing to himself. "I listened to him for an hour," remembers Akin, "and left with the familiar present-day radio character expression, 'What a character.'" While working at the Chicago Daily News, Akin discovered that "...anyone who is connected with newspapers invariably develops a love for books." At night school an English teacher further encouraged his literary desires, remarking, "One hasn't lived until he has read Don Quixote." Not only did Akin read it, but in forthcoming years he would collect rare multiple editions. Eventually he moved from newspapers to industrial and trade publications, employed as a publisher's representative for over twenty-five years. His work took him around the world, including frequent trips to Canada where, of course, he also visited bookstores. In fact, he visited so often and developed such fondness for its people that he sharply responded to an anti-Canadian letter written by a Chicagoan that appeared in the Chicago Tribune. Akin's interest in Boswell and Johnson expanded to a desire for collecting first editions. He focused on the books he loved rather than specific authors as do many collectors. His collection contained first and early editions of Moby Dick, Gulliver's Travels, Pepy's Diary, Samuel Johnson's Dictionary and Robinson Crusoe. Other interests were Swift, Bunyan, and Lewis and Clark Americana. Many of the Bunyan volumes originated from the library of Rev. John Timothy Stone, beloved pastor of Chicago's 4th Presbyterian Church. As he traveled and collected, Akin held membership in several prestigious book lovers' organizations, including the Union League club; the Caxton club; the Dickens Fellowship; the Isaac Walton league, the Johnson Society of Litchfield, England; the Johnson Society of the Midwest; and a life member and honorary vice president of the Auchenleck Boswell Society in Scotland. Akin frequently visited the United Kingdom where he lectured on Johnson and Boswell. At Chicago's Boswell Club he assumed the role of Dr. Jonathan Shipley, Lord Bishop of St. Asaph, one of the original 13 members of the Johnson Literary Club. Reflecting on the bibliomaniac and his book, Akin notes that the collector "...prizes it as a monument, as a relic, as an object of art, as a rarity, or because it is curious. These elements and these alone can give to any object its collectible quality." During the 1940s, he attempted to minimize his compulsion, divesting himself of his entire collection. However, all to no avail. Soon he was again collecting, now with such vigor that "on one occasion, his publisher wanted to reach him in an emergency and did so by leaving messages at four well-known rare books stores." At one point the influx of acquisitions were such that Akin's wife, Phyllis, mildly protested her husband's "new bulky accessions, observing that she'd rather live in a home than a museum." In contrast to his wife's opinion, Akin felt that "the aroma of fine leather bindings equals 'Evenings in Paris' and the smell of an old book substitutes satisfactorily for Chanel No. 5." Simply stated, he knew "...of nothing more gratifying, physically, mentally or spiritually that to sit down to a cup of tea and browse among [his] books until [he found] something to satisfy [his] need at the moment."
Note Author: David Malone






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