The 2nd annual Book Issue

Celebrating Michigan’s large and lively literary community

Book collector’s philanthropic legacy continues


Most Lansing residents knew the late Jack Davis and his spouse, Sue, through their generous philanthropic gifts to organizations like the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, Fenner Nature Center, Lansing Promise and numerous other cultural institutions. 

You may have crossed paths with Davis, who died at 80 in 2020. He served on numerous task forces, like the blue ribbon panel that persuaded General Motors to construct assembly plants in Lansing and Delta Township and Pave the Way, the community group that told the story of the impact of Interstate 496. 

If you were lucky, you got to talk with Davis about another one of his passions: his collection of first-edition novels, which included everything from Sartre to Kerouac. 

In 2022, his philanthropy and bibliomania came together when his wife began to quietly donate the proceeds from an online auction of his collection to more than 30 Lansing organizations and charities. 

The majority of his large and eclectic book collection was either auctioned off or given as a gift to Michigan State University Libraries, but his family members kept some books that held special memories. 

Greg Davis, his son, vividly recalls his father dragging him to bookstores while they traveled across the world. His reward is a collection of “James Bond” first editions, which he treasures. 

His daughter, Jennifer Martin, was drawn to the many plays she attended with the family. She kept books like “Waiting for Godot,” a production that Jack and Sue Davis sponsored at the now-defunct BoarsHead Theater in Lansing. 

“I saved some plays that were meaningful to me, including plays by Harold Pinter and ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs,’ by Neil Simon,” she said.

Greg Davis said his father was first attracted to book collecting after taking an interest in Jean-Paul Sartre and other existentialists. Later, he was drawn to books like Albert Camus’ “The Stranger.” 

A quick look at the results of the auction represents the breadth of his collection. The total collection sold for $718,750 and included quality copies of 19th- and 20th-century literature, such as a first edition of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” which gaveled out at $18,750; John Steinbeck’s “Cup of Gold,” which sold for $18,750; T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” which went for $17,500; and Ernest Hemingway’s first American edition of “In Our Time,” which sold for $17,500. 

“Jack was interested in so many things, and not superficially. He delved into it,” Sue Davis said.

First editions of Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel,” Hunter S. Thompson’s “Hell’s Angels,” Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “The Sirens of Titan” were also auctioned off.

One of Jack Davis’ highlights was a first edition of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” which sold for $5,938. 

The family was especially proud of his political collection, which featured autographs from several presidents, including Abraham Lincoln. 

Davis also collected books by major Black authors, including James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Darkwater,” Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” Toni Morrison’s “Sula” and Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” One particular book, “Not Without Laughter,” by Langston Hughes, sold for $5,313. 

“The fine Library of Jack Charles Davis included works that were a testament to the collector’s rich interests in theater, existential philosophy, literature, architecture, art, history and politics. The collection resonated strongly with collectors and saw tremendous bidding activity,” said Gretchen Hause, vice president and senior specialist of books and manuscripts for Hindman Auctions, the company that sold the collection.

If hearing about Davis’ collection whets your appetite for book collecting, be sure to attend the 74th Michigan Antiquarian Book & Paper Show on April 30. Many area collectors developed their passion for books when they bought their first antique novel at Michigan’s oldest continually running book show, which will feature scores of booksellers from across the state and country. 


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