Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Paul Cato ’14 has been collecting books about the Kennedy family for a long time. His book collection started with a gift from his father on his 8th birthday. The gift, Richard Tregaskis’ John F. Kennedy and PT-109, focuses on John F. Kennedy’s World War II heroics and was written before his assassination. This year, Cato was awarded second place in the annual A. Edward Newton Book Collection Competition for his Kennedy collection, which is now on display in McCabe’s second floor Cratsley Lounge through January 2014.
While not immediately drawn into the mystique of the Kennedys, Cato attempted to understand what made the Kennedys such an important family for Americans. After hearing the death of JFK’s son being discussed on a radio show, Cato’s interest in the Kennedy family was peaked.
In a speech he gave in McCabe about his collection, Cato stated, “I remember asking my mother something to the extent of, ‘Why does everyone make such a big deal about the Kennedys? I know John F. Kennedy was killed, but haven’t lots of politicians died or been assassinated? And why do people care so much about his entire family if only he was president? Will people keep talking about Chelsea Clinton in the future?'” Though Cato’s mother attempted to answer the question, her answer was ultimately unsatisfactory to him. This curiosity and lack of understanding about the Kennedys provoked Cato to open that book which his father had given him for Christmas. Thus, Cato began learning about the much-discussed family and amassing more books in order grasp the essence of what made the family so beloved.
Learning about the Kennedys, which started as a passionate hobby for Cato, has evolved into an award-winning book collection. Cato started the book collection the summer after his junior year in high school and has continued to consciously grow it since then. Cato admits that when he entered the Newton competition, he did not have any expectations since he had not placed when he previously entered the competition. The second time around, however, with no expectations and a genuine hunger for knowledge of the Kennedys demonstrated through his book collection, Cato snatched the second-place victory.
With this book collection, Cato wished to express a part of American history that is cherished by many. In his speech, Cato explained, “My collection of Kennedy literature helps illustrate my understanding of American history as a phenomenon made up of four core components: myth, memory, narrative, and artifact.” Cato did not just pick any books about the Kennedy family to be a part of his collection. He was looking for books that demonstrated Kennedy history with specific elements. “At least one of these elements is prevalent in every text within each example of Kennedy literature, and these categories help provide a better means of organizing my collection than would a simple chronological or alphabetical listing,” Cato said. With his interest in American history and American studies, it is no surprise that he chose one of the most iconic families of the nation’s history as the concept for his collection.
In explaining these four components in more detail, Cato stated, “At the heart of my personal understanding of American history lies the concept of myth. Those historical figures and events which stand at the forefront of the American mind hold a somewhat mythological significance in our nation’s memory.” Cato then explained narrative as a platform that conveys historical events in a more engaging manner than plain facts could. In addition to narrative, artifact is another theme that consistently shows up in Cato’s book collection. Cato explained, “Lastly, I use the term artifact to denote those items which speak for themselves.” Cato described artifacts as anything from landmarks to art. Together, the myths, memories, narratives and artifacts recreate a history and an image of the Kennedys that America treasures, and Cato made an effort to express that through his collection.
Cato plans to continue to add to his Kennedy collection. In terms of other possible book collections, Cato reports that he has a budding collection of books on the subject of colonial Africa. With his Kennedy project, Cato will continue collecting volumes and creating personal connections to American history through books that try to illuminate principles and values that were once held dear by the American people.
Photo courtesy of Elena Ruyter ’14/The Daily Gazette