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hargrett library :: past exhibits :: To Infinity and Beyond! The Fanzine Collection of Ned Brooks

 

To Infinity and Beyond! The Fanzine Collection of Ned Brooks

brooks

Ned Brooks Loved Books:
The Man Who Discovered Science Fiction Fandom for Two Dollars

 “O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees.
Thy starlight on the Western Seas.”

— Ned’s favorite verse from JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

In 1971 when I first met Cuyler W. Brooks, Jr., better known in science fiction fandom as Ned (a family name), I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that his home in Newport News, Virginia was literally filled with books—even the kitchen. Outside of a library or a bookstore, I had never seen so many books under one roof.

A lifelong bachelor who worked as an aeronautical engineer for NASA at its nearby facility in Hampton, Ned was a bibliophile devoted to reading and collecting books—it was his consuming passion, as he pointed out in Slanapa.

When Ned passed away in August 2015, his lifetime of serious collecting resulted in the curation of 20,000 books (half of them science fiction and fantasy), and thousands of fanzines dating back to the forties. In truth, Ned’s house was a library of the fantastique, in which one could find a book on virtually any topic, no matter how obscure.

In fact, Ned was known in fandom as the “go to” guy for information—the more esoteric, the better. If he didn’t know it, he could look it up; and if he didn’t have an answer that satisfied him, he’d contact one of his friends in the science fiction community—his extended family—who would know. warhoon

Moreover, Ned would do the research free of charge, which was a boon to fans who couldn’t afford the cost of professional researchers. He was living proof of Neil Gaiman’s adage that, although Google can find a million answers, a knowledgeable librarian will find the right one.

In Ned’s case, there didn’t seem to be anything he didn’t know about, because he found the world and its machinations to be endlessly fascinating, as reflected by his book collection and varied interests. His house, jam-packed with books arranged alphabetically or by subject matter, also housed dozens of antique typewriters and mimeograph machines, hundreds of vinyl records, colored glass balls, original artwork and signed prints, and numerous mechanical curiosities—objects that bespoke of his abiding interest in science and engineering.

In the U.S., the first known gathering of science fiction fans took place at a private home in Philadelphia in 1936. Among the six or seven fans was
Frederik Pohl, who would later become a professional science fiction writer.

If Ned could travel back in time to that first gathering, he would have fit right in. The all-male group yearned for, and envisioned, a future substantially
shaped by science fiction. They believed that man would eventually land on the moon—a loony notion back in the thirties. They also believed in the inherent promise of spaceships, the notion that mankind would live forever by seeding the stars, and the eventuality that we would colonize planets far beyond our own, as depicted in the art of science fiction artists— Chesley Bonestell, Frank Kelly Freas, and Michael Whelan.

Not surprisingly, Ned would go on to be a rocket scientist. He earned a B.S. in physics at Georgia Tech (June 1959), and a M.S. degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Virginia, and had the same mindset as those early fans: He had one foot firmly planted in the real world of aerospace, where he made a comfortable living, and the other firmly rooted in the unreal and fantastic world of imaginative literature and science fiction—from H.P. Lovecraft to Robert A. Heinlein.

When Ned moved from Atlanta to Newport News in 1959, he took a room in a boarding house, which he soon outgrew because of his growing book
collection. He then moved to a small house on Paul Street, near the Newport News shipyard; and as his burgeoning book collection grew, so did his house: first, an extended wing that occupied the back yard, and then a second story with oversized windows. When expanding the house was no longer an option, he decided to simply buy the house next door, which became a second repository for books and a guest home for visiting fans.

Unlike a public library, Ned’s private library was mostly for his own reference and enjoyment, but fans whom he knew occasionally visited, some staying the night. For them, it was an unforgettable experience: Ned was not only an excellent conversationalist, but both of his houses were Aladdin caves of bibliographic treasures.

zinesOn the shelves one could find a copy of The Ship that Sailed to Mars, a rare book issued in a small print run; H.P. Lovecraft’s first book, The Outsider and Others, issued by Arkham House; or Ray Bradbury’s first book, Dark Carnival, another Arkham House title. Any fan would be up late in the evening, carefully pulling books off shelves for perusal because it’s not likely he would otherwise run across them, including the rare, the unusual, and the curious tomes in Ned’s library.

All of his books were carefully preserved, with their dust jackets protected by acetate sleeves against possible damage. Inside the book’s front cover, one could often find memorabilia—a handwritten postcard or note from its author, publisher, or a bookseller.

I first met Ned when I was a college student. In October 1970, I queried the local newspaper about a cartoonist whose work I deemed “sadistic” (my poor choice of words), which prompted a stern and pointed response from “C.W.B.”

I followed up and got CWB’s phone number from the newspaper. In February 1971, I drove out to his home on Paul Street, where Ned (Cuyler W. Brooks, Jr) showed me his near-complete collection of printed Vaughn Bode’ material (our mutual interest, which prompted my newspaper query), along with handwritten letters from Vaughn. Ned gave me a tour of the house. I boggled at the sheer number of books, especially the fantasy and science fiction titles from small presses in the field that comprised his impressive and valuable collection.

Later, when we went out to a local restaurant, I was surprised that the staff knew him on sight. Ned always went out to eat because he never cooked a meal for himself. In his kitchen, he made good use of the refrigerator, where he stored soft drinks, and cheese. The stove served as a place to stack books. The cabinets stored various brands of crackers. A meal at his home meant snack food—cheese and crackers washed down with soda.

When eating out, he dined at a handful of places where he always ordered “the usual.” (He never consulted a menu because the staff knew what he wanted and simply brought it.) 

That was the first of our countless meals together, in a friendship that spanned forty-four years. In the beginning, I was a young and impressionable fan who was appreciative of the many doors Ned opened for me, personally and professionally. I was the recipient of his generosity, his knowledge of all things fannish, and his proven advice on how to collect wisely and well. In time, I became a professional writer—every fan writer’s dream job. It was Ned who encouraged me in a dream many thought chimerical.

Predictably, during the research of those books, I often consulted Ned. In particular, he provided copious notes on a non-fiction book about the popular television show, The Big Bang Theory, which I highly recommended to him—a show about geeks with physics backgrounds, like himself. He had some things in common with the show’s star, Sheldon, who was brilliant and single-minded and a unique individual. Ned told me afterward that he didn’t care for the show, and never saw it a second time. He thought the show, a comedy, wasn’t funny and also thought the characters were stereotyped.  But his research for my book proved invaluable because he had the physics background I lacked, and his notes helped me understand the context for the show’s episodes.

In another instance, a comic book artist working on a graphic novel about the Space Shuttle consulted Ned, who was on the team that designed and tested the tiles lining its bottom. His unpaid help did not go unappreciated—a cartoon panel in the book showed a door marked “Ned’s Office.” When the book was published, the artist showed her appreciation by gifting Ned with the original art for that page.

costume caseIt was through Ned that I became active in science fiction fandom in the early seventies, where he was already a BNF (Big Name Fan). His own introduction to the field came in 1959-60 when he saw a small ad in a science fiction magazine that promised: “Discover fandom for $2.” He sent in a check and got back a stack of random fanzines. It was in one of those zines that he saw a letter by another local fan, Phil Harrell, who lived in nearby Norfolk, Virginia. Ned contacted him, and fandom soon took root in Hampton Roads. Together, they formed FePuTo (the Fellowship of the Purple Tongue, named after the “ink” color of spirit duplicating machines), the first SF fan group in the area.

Well known in southern fandom, Ned was initially active in the National Fantasy Fan Federation, where he served as the editor of its journal, the Collector’s Bulletin. (In 1972, the organization awarded him the coveted Kaymar Award for his many contributions to them and southern fandom in general.)

Ned also went on to publish over 280 issues of The New Newport News, his apazine for SPFA (Southern Fandom Press Alliance), and contributed to 547 issues of SLANAPA. (He also edited that issue, which sported a Tim Kirk cover showing English book illustrator Arthur Rackham, whose work he collected in book form.)

Ned’s long-running fanzines (It Comes in the Mail, and It Goes on the Shelf) were running commentaries on his voluminous mail that, on a daily basis, brought letters, fanzines, books, and curiosities from all over the world, deposited in the largest-sized mailbox in the neighborhood. (Not surprisingly, Ned, like H.P. Lovecraft, was an ardent correspondent, and in his lifetime wrote several books’ worth of letters and e-mails.)
In addition to fanzines, Ned was active in semi-professional publications written especially for collectors. He compiled an art index to pulp illustrator Hannes Bok, followed by the Revised Hannes Bok Checklist. He also published two of my own art indices—the Vaughn Bode Index, and Kirk’s Works (covering cartoonist Tim Kirk’s early years).

Ned also introduced me to the delightful and multifarious world of science fiction conventions, from semi-local (Durham minicons) to international (the World Science Fiction conventions held in major cities around the world). We especially enjoyed those road trips to Durham, North Carolina, where we loaded up a carload of fans from Hampton Roads, always with Ned behind the wheel, to attend the one-day Durham mini-cons.

On two occasions, Ned was no mere attendee but, in fact, the fan guest of honor, at Rivercon IV (1978), and DeepSouthCon (2001). At cons, Ned was most often seen in the dealer’s room, selling duplicates from his ever-growing book collection. It was also a good place for people to find and engage him in conversation.

At conventions or in local fan groups, Ned loved to surround himself with others like himself who had a lifelong appreciation, and fascination with, illustrated books, fantasy artwork, and authors of imaginative fiction. I cannot think of anyone I know who so clearly loved old books—their design, typography, heft, and distinctive scent—the way Ned did. He cared little for traditional bookstores; he preferred haunting used bookstores where you could find the rare, the unusual, and the weirdest of tales. An ardent completest, Ned pursued collecting the entire output of his favorite authors—notably J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, Gene Wolfe, Ursula K. LeGuin, R.A. Lafferty, Tanith Lee, et al. Like a dog on a fox hunt, once he was in hot pursuit for a title he needed to complete his collection, he was doggedly determined, relentless, and ultimately successful.

zine_artWhen Ned finally retired from NASA after 38 years, he decided to move back home, to the Atlanta area, to be near his family—his aged mother (who lived to be over 100), and his sister Mary and her children. By then, Ned had drastically cut back on his travels to conventions but continued to publish fanzines, collect books, and correspond by e-mail to fans worldwide.

It was during this time that he was most active in maintaining an unofficial repository for fanzines that fans were reluctant to simply throw away. Ned cheerfully added them to his collection, many with handwritten addresses to famous fans on their back covers or mailing envelopes.

Ned also spent considerable time assisting fans and professional researchers who came to him for help. Had he wished, he could have supplemented his income with fees for professional research, including providing photocopies, but he never accepted money for his scholarly efforts. He saw it as an extension of his fannish activities, and a way to fruitfully spend time and do so enjoyably.
Ned helped not only fans but large institutions who sought him out. He donated sixty-five pounds of rare fanzines to the Special Collections at the University of California at Riverside, which houses the largest science fiction and fantasy collection in the world. The extensive nature of his own collection meant that he could fill in the gaps, which would otherwise be impossible: looking for a specific fanzine, often issued in a small run, is always a challenge. But if anyone had a copy readily available, in mint condition, it would most likely have been Ned.

Fanzines, said Melissa Conway (Ned’s contact for the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy at UC-Riverside), are “enormously important. There are people who started in this when they were 13 and are 90 now. … This is a month-by-month record of the readers of science fiction, their conversations and their community. It’s how they became lifelong friends, much like our kids do now on Facebook,” she told the Atlanta Journal Constitution (“Lilburn fanzine publisher helped sci-fi flourish,” by Michelle Hiskey.)

In retirement, Ned was finally able to spend time catching up on his reading, always dipping into the multifarious books in his collection: In his bedroom, he always had dozens of books that commanded his attention, each with its placed marked with a slip of paper.

There are collectors who principally buy books because they are collectible and are a good investment. There are also collectors who buy because
they simply love to read, with little or no regard to a book’s investment potential.

Ned was a collector who bought books because he simply loved them. To him, the real value of his massive book and fanzine collection lay in their contents—the untold years of accumulated knowledge by people whose lives were dedicated to studying and chronicling what they had learned, and in the telling of tales, weird and wondrous strange, that sparked one’s imagination with vistas of worlds that have never existed. Knowledge and entertainment, not their commercial value, were lifelong appeals to Ned Brooks, the man who dearly loved books.  

A reminisce from Ned’s close friend, George Beahm.

Click here for a Muggle's Crash Course on Fanspeak.

Click here for a Word About Zines and Printing.

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