Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Edward Marsh keeps his valuable science fiction collection in what he calls the Marsh Library. It’s a stand-alone building on his gated estate, and it’s the size of a two-bedroom home.
One of the world’s most impressive collections of science fiction is now in the hands of the San Diego State University library. It’s just part of the literary wealth of an SDSU graduate who’s begun to donate his collection to his alma mater. Edward Marsh is also a follower of the Church of Scientology. KPBS culture reporter Angela Carone visited his Escondido home to find out what else he collected.
Framed portraits adorn the hallway leading into one of the rooms. One is a painting of a white-haired man wearing a ship captain’s hat. The other artwork depicts the same man floating among galaxies. It was painted by recently deceased psychic and artist Ingo Swann, who once conducted an out-of-body exploration of the planet Jupiter.
The portraits are of L. Ron Hubbard.
“No one enters Ron’s room without signing the guest book,” Marsh explained as he handed me a pen.
L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the controversial Church of Scientology, is the central figure in Marsh’s collection. Hence his own room.
Down the hall from “Ron’s room,” is the Golden Age of Science Fiction room. Here Marsh has the complete signed works of authors like H.G. Wells, Frank Herbert, who wrote “Dune,” and Jules Verne. Marsh has already given a rare Jules Verne novel to San Diego State University, his alma mater. Marsh beamed. “They have a book there, only two copies are known to exist. It’s called ‘A Chinaman’s Adventures.’ Phenomenal!”
The rare Verne novel was part of a larger gift to SDSU’s Love Library, valued at $2.5 million. It represents only a third of Marsh’s entire collection. The gift included signed works by Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and George Orwell, among others. The gift is now being catalogued but will eventually be on public display. Marsh hopes the exhibition will help “educate young people whose knowledge of science fiction is ‘Avatar.’”
Marsh is 61 and retired from the real estate business, though he still wears the uniform: a blue blazer and khaki pants. He’s spent the last 40 years building his collection of signed first edition books, letters, pulp magazines, and film scripts. An initial appraisal puts its worth between $10 and $15 million.
The library is climate controlled. Marsh is a heavy smoker, but he uses smokeless cigarettes in the library. And on planes. Marsh took a drag and practically crooned, “It’s the only way to fly.”
Marsh keeps each book in its own handcrafted, gold embossed preservation box. There are hundreds of them. But he doesn’t use gloves to turn the book pages. “I’m not that kind of guy. I’m a snob. I actually don’t read books that are not signed by the author. But if you can’t handle it and can’t enjoy it, why even have it?”
Marsh admires each of the 50-plus authors in his collection, but his reverence for L. Ron Hubbard goes back to age 17 when Marsh joined the Church of Scientology. Marsh grew up in La Mesa. His dad was a well-to-do attorney and his mother a socialite. They were skeptical of his newfound faith. When Marsh told them it was the reason he stopped taking drugs, they were more supportive.
Today, Marsh has reached the highest levels of the church, meaning he’s an OT 8 or “Operating Thetan, Level Eight.” “Thetan” is the church’s term for spirit or soul. To reach level OT 8, Marsh has paid for thousands of what the church calls auditing sessions, which are similar to counseling sessions. Marsh said it was an investment. “As a young man, I was very troubled. Extremely troubled. Today, I haven’t an unhealthy care in the world. I love the problems I have. I love my family. I love this collection. I love my philosophy and my religion.”
Upon entering “Ron’s room,” the eye is drawn immediately to a large gold bust of Hubbard, displayed prominently in a curtained enclave. Surrounding it are shelves and shelves of Hubbard’s writing. He was prolific, writing essays and poetry, not to mention the many science fiction novels that captured Marsh’s imagination. It was Hubbard’s interest in science fiction that inspired Marsh to collect.
Marsh owns multiple copies of Hubbard’s most famous non-fiction work, “Dianetics,” the book outlining the self-improvement techniques forming the basis of Scientology. Marsh points to a glass case holding his most prized possession. “This is the watch he wore from 1949 to 1952. It’s the same watch he wore while typing ‘Dianetics.’ Isn’t that something?”
Also in Ron’s room: an entire wall of E-meters, dating back to the 1950s. E-meters are used in auditing sessions to measure emotional states and “thought masses.” The technology is similar to lie detectors.
It’s almost an understatement to say Hubbard and the Church of Scientology are controversial. Both have been the subject of investigations and negative press going back to the 1950s.
Marsh says people take the wrong approach to Hubbard. “I don’t like L. Ron Hubbard being deified. He was a man!” Marsh yelled. “He liked women. He didn’t mind drinking. He wrote saucy stuff.” Marsh paused. “And I don’t like him being demonized either. He was a man not a demon.”
Marsh is still deciding where the remainder his collection will go, but SDSU and the Church of Scientology are likely candidates.
Until then he’s going to keep collecting. In fact, there are still hundreds of boxes in his garage to sort through. Marsh turned, confidence brimming, and said, “There are nuggets of gold up there, I guarantee it.”