UC Riverside gets a trove of ‘priceless’ Thai literature

Justin McDaniel has spent decades prowling the remote corners of Southeast Asia in search of literary treasure.

He has scoured Cambodia, roamed the national library of Laos, picked over Burmese books in Myanmar and nosed about rural monasteries in Thailand.

Rare volumes of ancient wisdom and obscure religious texts have long been his quarry. He has hauled them back in jammed suitcases to UC Riverside’s growing Southeast Asian library.

Yet nothing prepared the Buddhist monk-turned-academic for the mother lode he struck when a fellow bibliophile in Bangkok agreed to sell the university more than 12,000 rare books.


It’s a virtual archive of Thai culture, taking in the full sweep of the nation’s history, religious lore, art and anthropology. There’s even a book on Abraham Lincoln, written in Thai.

“Every time I come down here, I can’t believe we own this stuff,” said McDaniel, a professor of religious studies, as he thumbed through a tattered 100-year-old volume of Buddhist children stories. “This is priceless.”

The books have doubled the size of the college’s Southeast Asian library on a campus that is now 40% Asian.

But actually getting them into the library isn’t easy.

A year and a half after it arrived, the collection languishes in the locked basement of the Science Library, the victim of spending cuts and language problems.

The university has muddled along with three Thai-speaking volunteers and a part-time cataloger -- but so far they have sorted only about 100 books. An employee who devised a Thai-language keyboard to organize the collection was reassigned because of budget constraints.

“We have people experienced in cataloging and some people who know Thai, but they are not the same people,” said Manuel Urrizola, head of UCR’s cataloging department. “Languages are always a challenge, but even when you don’t have expertise, there are usually small numbers of books to deal with. Here you have one of the biggest collections in the U.S., but it came at the same time as the budget crisis.”

Faculty members hope the collection will help attract students and international scholars to the university’s growing Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian and Philippine study programs.


“The books are huge. We may not have the largest collection of Buddhist literature in the country, but we compete with the largest collections,” said professor Rene Lysloff, interim director of UCR’s Southeast Asian Studies Program. “We expect to be the first campus in Southern California to have an area study resource center in Southeast Asian studies.”

Getting the books into the library would be a step in the right direction. McDaniel thinks that could take as long as two to three years -- not that it has dimmed his enthusiasm.

“Here are pictures of early Thai wildlife,” he said excitedly, moving swiftly among the dimly lighted stacks and pulling books at random. “This is folk poetry. Usually these kinds of books are not translated; they are not deemed important enough. Here you are getting a glimpse of day-to-day life. You are seeing day-to-day art, not giant statues of the Buddha.”

Given his background, it’s not surprising the collection fell into his hands. It might even be karma.


Born in a Philadelphia row house, McDaniel, 37, was raised a strict Irish Catholic. His mother believed he was destined for the priesthood, but his heart tugged him east. After college, he headed for Thailand to teach English and AIDS education at an all-girls high school.

“I spent a lot of time in the temple in town,” he said. “I wanted to be a monk in a rural place. I realized the only way I would know Thai Buddhism was if I submerged myself in it.”

So he did, throwing himself into the ascetic life of the monastery. It was an exacting existence with strict mental and physical rules, such as sleeping with one’s head four inches off the floor and celebrating the success of one’s enemies. He meditated on a decomposing human corpse to sever his attachment to the physical body.

“That got the message across,” he said.


When McDaniel finished his training, the head monk gave him a stack of palm leaves with Buddhist chants etched on them, some meant to ward off forest ghosts. The leaves sit in his cramped office, still smelling of incense.

McDaniel, who speaks Thai and has a doctorate in Sanskrit, returned to the United States and became a professor at UC Riverside. In 2006, he received a grant to buy $150,000 worth of books in Southeast Asian languages.

He thought immediately of a friend in Bangkok whose house contained one of the largest book collections he had ever seen.

“It was a nondescript building, but every single surface was covered in books,” he said. “He had shelves in the middle of his living room.”


His name was Thongchai Likhitpornsawan, which means ‘literature from heaven’ in Thai, McDaniel said.

The professor asked to buy his entire collection, but the 12,800 books Likhitpornsawan agreed to sell were just a fraction of it.

“He was pricing books at five cents, a dollar, five dollars,” McDaniel said. “This was extremely rare stuff.”

McDaniel spent $68,000 and the books arrived in late 2007, carefully boxed in Thai beer crates.


Tach Sirichai of Murrieta is one of the Thai volunteers helping to sort them.

“We are doing triage, finding copies likely to be the most useful, like art, religion and history, and cataloging them first,” he said, standing among more than two dozen shelves of books. “I’m finding a lot of books from my past here.”

Snagging the collection was McDaniel’s legacy to UCR. He has accepted a teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania and is leaving this month.

“Now that we have the books and some people cataloging, I feel good about leaving,” he said. “And I’m sure I will be seeing these books again someday.”