On June 1, Bad Animal will give an extraordinary library of over 500 volumes to a local high-school student.
The Rhoads Prize, as the award is called, honors the memory of Noah Rhoads (1992-2014), who was a student at Scotts Valley High School and earned a degree in philosophy at UCSC. Bad Animal co-founder Andrew Sivak explained that his book department has spent a year assembling the titles—“some signed, a few first editions, but mostly solid paperbacks of the finest works in print. We’ll announce the winner on Sunday, May 30,” he says. I spoke to Sivak about how it works.
How did the Rhoads Prize come about?
ANDREW SIVAK: The book department thought up the idea after our first few months in operation. Standard operating procedure was to donate the books left by patrons that we didn’t buy, typically to prisons or the local Goodwill. We started noticing some of these paperbacks that were still in good enough condition for at least one more read. Then one day we were bemoaning the current format for book-collecting competitions. We thought something more interesting and powerful would be to give a broad collection of our choosing to a student for nothing. Once this idea took hold, my thoughts kept turning to Noah Rhoads, who was obsessed with reading and the idea of desire. That’s the sole criteria here: How badly do you want it, and how well can you articulate that want?
How do high-school students compete for this prize?
To be considered, submit a response of no more than 1,000 words to the following prompt: Why you? How much you may deserve the collection is of no consequence. What matters is how badly you want it. The winner, to be selected by a celebrity panel of writers and bibliophiles, will hold the title of Bad Animal Rhoads Scholar. All current high school students in Santa Cruz County are eligible. Essays must be submitted to [email protected] by midnight on April 30. Our estimate for the value of the grand prize is $3,000; second place wins a $200 gift card; third place gets $100.
Do you think high-school students will go for it?
I hope this prompt knocks these high school students off their typical self-glorifying personal essay perch. I read for UCSC admissions for two years and was appalled at how formulaic and trite the essays were. We wanted our prompt to be totally alien to that way of thinking. The collection is meant to be an intellectual catalyst.
How did you select the books?
Same way we do it for the shop. We try to acquire the best of what comes along. For this exercise, that meant books in the donation pile and remainders with multiple copies. Our mission is to use our collective intelligence to fish out the best books that we then offer at the lowest prices anywhere. We use our knowledge and cunning to benefit our customers. So it is with the Rhoads Prize. Our combined intellectual effort has been focused on the task of building the best 500-volume library we possibly could based on what came along.
Would you yourself have considered these books a worthy prize in high school?
My God yes. More than that, a lifeline. My high school teachers, with a couple very notable exceptions, were sadistic Philistines. Raw intelligence and earned erudition offended them greatly. What mattered was our obedience training and them being a good bureaucrat. Books were my only way of transcending that disciplinary hell hole.
How does the Rhoads Prize fit into the Bad Animal mission?
We’re trying to fight for the life of the mind: a literary, artistic, analog, bohemian way of life at odds with self-interest, vanity, bigotry, greed, prestige mongering, and gadget worship. Living that way is under threat, here and everywhere. Santa Cruz is an ideal place to make a stand. When we opened our doors most bookshops were closing them. The pandemic has accelerated this trend. If anything the virus has crystallized our mission and our sense of the epic stakes.
Isn’t a 500-volume prize a bit excessive?
You’re right—100 is plenty, 500 is borderline nuts. But we’re Bad Animal, dammit. Excess always.