Author Q. David Bowers and the art of numismatic writing

Guest Commentary from the Feb. 23, 2014, issue of Coin World
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Published : 02/10/15
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Dennis Tucker has been publisher of Whitman Publishing LLC, in Atlanta, since 2004.

If you’re a longtime coin collector, as I am, you’ve likely read the work of Q. David Bowers. After all, he’s been writing in the field of numismatics since the 1950s, he published his first book (Coins and Collectors) in 1964, his list of titles has surpassed four dozen, and his articles number in the thousands. Yes, the thousands, including hundreds of popular “Joys of Collecting” columns here in Coin World. So if you’ve been collecting coins, tokens, medals, or paper money for more than a year or two and you’ve never read a word of Bowers, the good news is you’re rarer than a 1913 V nickel! The bad news is you’re missing out on a full and complete hobby experience. Fortunately the solution is never far away, thanks to your local bookstore, the ANA library, and the Internet.

When I joined Whitman Publishing in December 2004, Dave Bowers was already the company’s numismatic director. Over the past 10 years we’ve worked on books ranging from 96-page monographs to 900-page encyclopedias.

One of the most frequent questions I hear from collectors is, “How does Dave Bowers write so many books?” The process is remarkable — more immersive than the simple physical act of sitting down at a desk to write. The bedrock of his system is the Bowers archives. Long before the Internet, Dave was compiling a personal research center of books, newspapers, magazine clippings — anything and everything numismatic. Starting in the mid-1950s he began interviewing key figures in numismatics — B. Max Mehl, Abe Kosoff, U.S. Mint directors, and hundreds more — gaining knowledge that would have otherwise been lost forever. As technology has advanced, so has the Bowers research machine. Instead of having to travel the world, the Internet puts him in a hundred places at once, with instant communications.

This brings up another important factor in how Dave Bowers works: collaboration. “To have a friend, you must be a friend,” as the proverb goes.

Dave has built a reputation as a researcher who shares information instead of jealously guarding it. His network has grown strong from this, as others reciprocate his generosity.

Another element of the Bowers method is a constant and never-resting spirit of inquiry that spans genres and disciplines. Dave is as curious a student of State quarters as he is of Massachusetts Colonial silver. He studies antique music machines, vintage post cards, and other fields outside numismatics.

Add to these elements a genuinely engaging writing style; the ability to connect with and satisfy readers; a scientist’s ability to rigorously test theories and fearlessly question conventional wisdom; and an artist’s knack of envisioning the whole before the parts are assembled.

As Dave’s Guide Book of Hard Times Tokens was underway in 2014, he was also actively working on manuscripts about obsolete paper money, sutler tokens, and several other topics. “I like to work on projects in parallel,” he always tells me. When he gets bored with one he’ll turn to another, which somehow charges his batteries so he can return to the first refreshed.

So there are some of my behind-the-scenes perspectives on the Dean of American Numismatics. When ambitious young writers ask me, “How can I become the next Q. David Bowers?” the answer is simple. All it takes is an insatiable curiosity about the world, a steel-trap mind, the ability to connect a hundred different disciplines logically and with panache, a vast network of friendly collaborators whose respect hasn’t been bought or beguiled but earned, an untiring work ethic, and 50 years of experience. Start early. The encouraging news is that if you accomplish even one-half of Bowers’ output, you’ll have earned a secure place in the numismatic history books.

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