The Collector

Whether leather-bound sets of books or vintage port, Bob Tanner knows what he likes

Published in 2004 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine

By Joan Oliver Goldsmith on February 21, 2004


Litigator Bob Tanner is a man of enduring passions. For the last 20 years he’s been collecting the works of the Western world’s major authors — in leather-bound sets. The 2,000 volumes now fill two of three bedrooms in his house and spill out into the halls.There’s no room for books in the basement, because that’s where he keeps his “consumable collection” of vintage port wine. He’s also published two highly regarded books on Civil War military strategy — a historical fascination that dates from his elementary school days.
“I have a vague recollection of being taken to see Gone with the Wind when I was 4,” Tanner says. “My mother can’t confirm it. But I’m from L.A. originally, so if it wasn’t Gone with the Wind, I don’t know what would account for it.”
The genesis of his book collection is less mysterious, almost accidental, a direct result of the lawyerly life.Tanner, a partner at Weinberg,Wheeler, Hudgins, Gunn & Dial, joined its predecessor firm in 1978, five years after being admitted to the bar. His career has focused on medical defense work, and in 2002 he was named one of the best lawyers for personal injury litigation in the Atlanta metro area by Atlanta Magazine.
On deposition trips, the young litigator found himself with time on his hands, which he often spent in bookshops. “I’d see a set of books and think, ‘That would be great to own.’ Finally I bought one.Then I saw another.”
The collection has grown, one or two sets per year, to the point where these days he’s talking to a builder and an architect about building a new dwelling to house himself, the books and their future colleagues.
Tanner’s goal for the collection is not just an assortment of fine books, but rather “the complete works of all the major writers in the history of the West, bound in uniform volumes of gilt leather binding.”
Not all the major authors are available in leather sets — an omission he happily remedies by collecting an author’s complete works and them having them bound, usually in London.
And who qualifies as a major author, anyway? Tanner admits that one could have some fine debates about the list, but, after all, it’s his collection, and “like obscenity, you know it when you find it.”
After he has passed on, the collection, he hopes, will form an instructional legacy for students at his undergraduate alma mater,Virginia Military Institute. By that time all reading matter will be in digital format, he believes, and he envisions future generations holding a leather-bound volume in hand and saying, “Oh, so this is a book. It’s really neat.”
Tanner has written and published his book on Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley campaign twice: in 1976 and in 1996.The 1976 release came only three years after he took the bar exam, a period when attention to billable hours leaves most lawyers little time for writing history. “I got an early start on it, studying the war in high school, writing some term papers in college, and Civil War research was my release in law school.” Stonewall in the Valley became a History Book Club book of the month.
Then in the late ’80s, Ken Burns’ documentary series on the Civil War was broadcast on PBS. “People went up into their attics and found their ancestors’ letters. In my deposition travels, I would swing by and get copies.”Tanner found “great quantities of diaries and letters from participants — privates to generals, some very articulate.”
As a result of this newly acquired material — and the “analytical skills you get practicing law for 20 years” — Tanner questioned the accepted wisdom about how Jackson planned the most brilliant strategic move of the campaign. Tanner’s point of view was so different that he considered writing a new book, under a different name, to argue with himself. But ultimately “decided to ’fess up.” A reader reviewer at calls the revision “a testament to Mr. Tanner’s zeal for history and accuracy.”
His zeal for sipping good port and acquiring good books continues. If you know of a set of James Joyce or John Locke, he’d like to hear from you. He’s OK on William Butler Yeats.

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