Down the Rabbit Hole

By Anh-Minh Le

Husband and wife David and Pamela Hornik are avid collectors of contemporary art, focusing on figurative works in their Palo Alto residence as well as gifting institutions such as Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center. In the former, amid pieces by Chuck Close, Joan Brown and Hope Gangloff, David also maintains a decidedly more idiosyncratic trove: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland books amassed from all over the world, numbering somewhere between 750 and 1,000. “If I happen upon an interesting visual interpretation of the story, I’ll pick it up,” he says. “The thing that fascinates me is that you can interpret the exact same text in so many dramatically different ways.”

David Hornik with his collection of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland books. Photographed by Spencer Brown.

In 1990, after graduating from Stanford — where, fun fact, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang was a freshman-year dormmate — David spent a year abroad. While studying criminology at the University of Cambridge, he frequented the historic English city’s bookstores. One day, he came across a version of the 1865 Lewis Carroll novel illustrated by Ralph Steadman, who is well-known for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson.

“I started flipping through and it had these fascinating views of the Alice images — they’re beautiful, but they’re crazy,” David recalls. “Right next to that was another edition that was exactly what you would expect — a bucolic view of a pretty Alice and fun animals. The contrast between the two was so compelling, I ended up buying both of them.” (And yes, he recognizes the irony in his collection starting in Cambridge — rival to the University of Oxford, the birthplace of Alice.)

“Every country I went to, I bought a copy of ‘Alice’ in their language.”

David Hornik

A subsequent backpacking trip around Europe with about a dozen stops led to further acquisitions. “Every country I went to, I bought a copy of Alice in their language,” he says. “I tried to get versions that I thought reflected the place that I’d been.” He describes the illustrations in an edition procured in Prague, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as “quite dark and brooding.” That particular tome was a large hardcover. “By the time I finished back-packing,” David notes with a laugh, “I’d probably added 25 pounds of books to my backpack.” The growing assemblage joined him at Harvard, where he earned his law degree, as well as in New York City, where he and Pamela lived prior to moving to the Bay Area in 1997.

Until last year, the books were kept in his office at August Capital. “People would often be chatting with me and look over my shoulder and they’d say, ‘I didn’t know you were a big fan of children’s books,’” recounts David, who is a general partner at the venture capital firm. “And I’d say, ‘Not really. You have to look more closely—it’s a little more specific than that.’ And they’d say, ‘Oh geez, it’s all Alice in Wonderland!’”

When August Capital moved from Sand Hill Road to an open-plan space in San Francisco without individual offices, the books found a new home: the Horniks’ guest house. “I was less than thrilled when his collection left his office shelves and displaced my art book collection,” says Pamela, a longtime volunteer at the Cantor and its neighboring museum on campus, the Anderson Collection. “The art books are now in piles in various places throughout the house.” (She plans to ship some of them to a son, the oldest of the couple’s four children, who lives in New York.)

Over the years, Pamela has contributed to David’s cache, picking up a few editions she discovered at art galleries. Other family members keep an eye out, too. The most recent additions to the singular library were from his sister, who is a children’s book publisher at Penguin. As her office was moving late last year, she gave David three books. It turns out, he already owned one of them, which is always a risk considering the myriad iterations available. “It’s no longer protected by copyright, so anyone who wants to make a version can do so,” says David. “Because it’s become icon-ic, there are lots and lots of artists who think of it as a rite of passage.”

Lewis Carroll was the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, an Oxford mathematician who wrote children’s literature. Dodgson with-drew the initial run’s 2,000 copies after illustrator Sir John Tenniel, upon seeing one of 50 advance copies, voiced his dissatisfaction with the print quality. It is believed that only about two dozen of the original issues survived. In 1998, according to Christie’s, one of the five that were still in private hands — a volume that had once belonged to the author himself — sold at auction for $1.54 million.

While David’s collection includes some that are limit-ed editions, for him, the point is the artist’s vision, not the rarity. “There are so many folks who have created interesting versions of Alice, it’s kind of an end-less quest,” he says. “I’ll never run out of new and interesting discoveries, that’s for sure.”

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