The JCB Loses a Sterling Bookman: David Parsons (1939-2014)

Dennis Landis, Curator of European Books, John Carter Brown Library

Staff at the John Carter Brown Library were surprised and saddened by the sudden passing of Board member David Parsons, who had been in touch with us not long previously, and had seemed to us the picture of health.
David was a singularly committed and supportive friend of the JCB, always thinking of ways to contribute his expertise and other resources. When his great Pacific exploration collection came on the market in a fine two-volume catalogue by Hordern House, he told me he would be happy to pull a book from the sale to present to the JCB, if I could identify one most desirable for the Library. This was a very fine collection, and so not an altogether easy decision.

As the editors at Hordern House expressed it,

“David Parsons has been one of the foremost collectors in this area for many years, and has assembled a collection of extraordinary quality. His many friends in the book-collecting world are already familiar with his uncanny ability to find the right copy of the right book. His remarkable eye for condition is demonstrated by the consistently high quality of just about every book described in this catalogue.”

The book I finally selected was Stepan Petrovich Krasheninnikov’s “Description of Kamchatka,” Opisanie zemli Kamchatki (Saint Petersburg, 1755), an exploration narrative in the original Russian. David very graciously withdrew it from the sale in the winter of 2006, allowing us to become the fifth American library to own it. The text includes one of the earliest printed narratives of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.

Krasheninnikov had joined Bering’s second expedition as an assistant to Georg Wilhelm Steller, and they explored Kamchatka together. The young student did not join Steller on the subsequent sea voyage, however, and made use of Steller’s notes in completing the book, citing them frequently, but he died before drafting an additional narrative about how he happened to join the project. The book very nicely complements our early Krasheninnikov editions in Dutch, English, French, and German.

In the sale catalogue, David Parsons also tells the story of how he was drawn into collecting, which I will summarize: One year David was in New York on business when, by coincidence, the annual spring book air was being held, and “on a whim” he dropped in to the fair. Being a fond reader of Patrick O’Brian’s seaborne fiction, he found a couple of first editions, but also the beginning volumes of a collection that furnished the background text that informed the historical novels, books on the voyages of Anson and Cook. As David himself put it, with those and two sets of Burney and Cook purchased not long after, “I was hooked and my collecting career was launched.” The scope of that late-eighteenth-century collection would broaden as his knowledge deepened on the age of sail.

We will miss the wise counsel and friendship of this gifted collector