He wasn’t supposed to be reading Moby-Dick.
But in Eric Ruskoski’s sophomore high school English class—which he wryly refers to as the “dumbbell class”— most students weren’t reading anything at all. So when the teacher strolled by Ruskoski’s desk and saw the fat volume with the whale on the cover, he was intrigued. “Stand up and give a book report,” he said. “Just talk about it.”
“So, with nothing prepared, I talked about it,” Ruskoski recalls. “I gave seven hourlong classes on Moby-Dick.” At the end of the term, the teacher promoted him to honors English. “It’s sort of the story of my life,” Ruskoski says—a series of false starts and intuitive leaps leading to unpredictable achievement and success.
It was a path that in 1976 led him to start what became the leading global manufacturer of dispensing closures for packaging—such as the innovative flip-top and upside-down dispenser caps now ubiquitous on ketchup, honey, and other products—and to become a collector of rare, first-edition books, mostly by modern American authors. Ruskoski recently donated part of his collection to the college. It includes a first edition of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms along with numerous books by John Updike, John Dos Passos, and John Barth.
Ruskoski entered Moravian thinking he would become a doctor, an ambition that crashed after he failed trigonometry (twice), floundered in organic chemistry, and fortunately realized, as chemistry professor Morris Bader pointed out, that he was more interested in playing football than in becoming a doctor.
He’d always loved literature—the Moby-Dick he’d picked up in the drugstore where he worked as a teenager in Hillside, New Jersey; J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; books about Darwin and the Galapagos Islands.
English professor Robert Burcaw enabled Ruskoski to switch his major to literature after he promised he would do his best to be a devoted student. In Moravian’s first Jan Plan, English professor George Diamond introduced Ruskoski to the work of John Barth and Bruce Jay Friedman, novelists known for their dark humor and postmodern sensibilities. He became interested in authors’ lives as well as their works. And he credits Moravian professors, including Burcaw, Diamond, and Bessie Michael, for encouraging him in spite of his erratic performance as a student. “Even when it appeared that I didn’t have an interest in my own education, the professors at Moravian took an interest, inspiring me to press on,” he says.
“Getting on the right track took me from probation to Dean’s List,” he notes. Graduate school at the University of Maine became another mind-shaping development. Ruskoski enrolled there thinking he would become a professor or a writer, but he could see from conversations with classmates (including Stephen King, who by then had declared himself a writer) that he was unlikely to succeed in the worlds of professional writing or academe. Ruskoski began a master’s thesis on Barth but never completed it.
Instead, he decamped for six months of backpacking around Europe, then returned to a string of jobs—bartender, freight railroad brakeman, truck driver, furniture loader—in the United States. In his spare time, he browsed used bookstores.
“When I got to Paris, I found a Philip Roth book, Goodbye, Columbus, and I just started reading it. Roth grew up in a town next to where I grew up, so it was kind of a connection.” He began to pick up first editions of books by authors he loved: Salinger, Updike, Saul Bellow. Hemingway. Fitzgerald.
“I only bought authors that I liked to read,” he says. “I had no money; I just wanted a good library.” Once, at the Strand Book Store in New York, he rejected a hardcover copy of the short story collection Lost in the Funhouse, by Barth, because he thought it was too expensive at $22. “It wasn’t a mission of mine to become a book collector, but somehow it became part of what I was doing.”
In the meantime, his book collection outgrew the space in his parents’ Pennsylvania barn, where he initially stashed the volumes, eventually filling custom-made shelves and credenzas in the home he and his wife, Sandy, built in Chicago.
If Ruskoski loved a particular author, he tried to acquire everything that person wrote. He browsed secondhand book shops in New York, Boston, and Chicago and on trips abroad. He attended readings and asked authors to sign their books, which made them more valuable.
The turning point from hobbyist to serious collector came when Ruskoski acquired a second edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass printed in 1856 (a year after the original) for Whitman and containing 20 additional poems. Whitman gave it to his sister, Mary Elizabeth, who then passed it to her daughter, Zora Tuthill, whose inscription appears in the front.
Ruskoski’s collection became a panoply of 20th-century modernist authors—Tim O’Brien, Ethan Canin, Thom Jones, and Larry McMurtry, along with Dos Passos and Hemingway. A few acquisitions strayed from that category; his collection included Shakespeare, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Camus. Ruskoski didn’t just acquire the books; he read, and often reread, all of them.
“McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, I could read a hundred times, probably. And Updike, I think he’s the best writer of our time.” When he read Jones’s The Pugilist at Rest, he was inspired to visit the statue that prompted the book’s title—a Hellenistic Greek sculpture housed in a tiny museum in Rome. “The book is about a guy who was a boxer in the Marines,” Ruskoski says. “But I’d go sit by the statue, and it struck me: This has more dimension than just a story.”
John Updike may be best recognized as the author of the Rabbit series of novels—Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest—and the novella Rabbit Remembered, but he also wrote short stories, poetry, essays, and criticism. The prolific writer published 60 books in his lifetime, and of those 60 books, Eric Ruskoski ’69 donated 44 titles, most first editions, to Moravian College last year.
“My subject is the American Protestant small-town middle class,” said Updike in a 1966 interview for Life magazine. “I like middles. It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”
Updike was born on March 18, 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania, just outside of Reading, and much of his early work is set in Pennsylvania middle-class towns reminiscent of Shillington. His father was a high school teacher and his mother an aspiring writer. Updike received a full scholarship to Harvard, where he majored in English, and graduated summa cum laude in 1954. In 1955, he began writing for the New Yorker, and from there, his career rocketed. He is one of only four novelists to win two Pulitzer Prizes: in 1982 for Rabbit Is Rich and in 1991 for Rabbit at Rest. Updike was also twice awarded the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and is among a select few to receive both the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Arts.
Moravian College holds the distinction of being the first educational institution to offer a John Updike course, which was developed by Lloyd Burkhart, then professor of English and department chair, in 1970.
John Updike died January 27, 2009, in Danvers, Massachusetts.
While Ruskoski occasionally uses an electronic reader, mostly for reading at night and when he travels, he prefers the real thing. “I’m one of those tactile people; I like to have something in my hands.” Actual books offer texture—the dust jacket, the deckled pages—that a digital book does not, along with the flexibility to leaf forward and backward easily.
“First state” editions (the earliest run of a first edition) fascinate him with the errors that show the imperfect path of a manuscript from the author’s mind to final publication. “There might be a woman’s name spelled incorrectly on the back flap, or the name of a train station is incorrect, or letters left out—that gives some sense of how this thing got from the author’s brain and what happened to it as it was getting into print.”
Ruskoski credits books for expanding his frame of reference. “At Moravian, and through reading literature, I got a much broader view of the world than most people. I’m very, very grateful for having had those opportunities, even though I didn’t appreciate them at the time,” he says.
Now, as a retired entrepreneur who has traveled the globe and who divides his time between homes in the United States and St. Lucia, he’s drawn to local authors—Carl Hiaasen, a journalist and novelist who writes about South Florida, is a new favorite—and enduring classics such as Homer’s Odyssey.
When he was working toward retirement—it took 2½ years to create and execute a plan for transition—he had the habit of reading the poem “Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, nearly every Saturday morning. The poem ends with an encouraging message:
“[T]hat which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
“What Tennyson had to say kept me going,” says Ruskoski. “Those last four lines, about striving and reaching for the stars.”
Anndee Hochman is a journalist, essayist, and storyteller. Her column, “The Parent Trip,” appears weekly in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and her work has also been published in Poets & Writers, Broad Street Review, Purple Clover, and other print and online venues. She is the author of Anatomies: A Novella and Stories as well as an essay collection, Everyday Acts & Small Subversions: Women Reinventing Family, Community and Home.
Asking Eric Ruskoski ’69 to cite his favorite books is a bit like asking a parent to name her best-loved child. Still, there are volumes he returns to, rereading them periodically and finding new insights and pleasures in their pages.
When choosing a book, he says, he’s often drawn in (or turned off) by the first few sentences. “I’m a big believer in what your gut tells you in the first 90 seconds of something. Instinct. Intuition. Gut feel: What does this guy have to say?”
Here are a few of Ruskoski’s top picks, along with the first line of each book and his impression of it.
by Joseph Heller
“It was love at first sight.”
by Larry McMurtry
“When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake—not a very big one.”
Lost in the Funhouse
by John Barth
“For whom is the funhouse fun?”
by Herman Melville
“Call me Ishmael.”
by John Updike
“Caldwell turned and as he turned his ankle received an arrow.”
The Catcher in the Rye
by J.D. Salinger
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
Learning with the Ruskoski Collection
The collection of 150 first-edition books donated by Eric Ruskoski fills nearly seven long shelves in the Special Collections and Rare Books Room, which is on the first floor of Reeves Library. The Rare Books Room is locked, and only a few members of the library staff have the key. But rest assured those volumes will not be left in the dark.
Cory Dieterly, Moravian’s archivist and one of the holders of the key, has big plans. He has developed a richly educational paid internship for students interested in a career in education, preferably those who wish to teach English. The work involves creating a series of exhibits in Reeves Library and online that showcase rare books and their authors alongside any archival materials that reveal a connection between the authors and the college. The first exhibit will showcase the works of Walt Whitman, highlighting his epic work Leaves of Grass. A rare edition printed in 1856 is part of the Ruskoski collection. The Whitman exhibit will be followed by one describing John Updike, his work, and his visits to Moravian. Subsequent displays will be of the student’s choice.
The internship will provide students several academic and professional experiences as outlined in Dieterly’s proposal:
To learn more about the internship or the college’s collection of rare books, contact Cory Dieterly at DieterlyC@moravian.edu.