It's unlikely that many people have read, sung, collected, typed and otherwise dealt with more words than Bobby McFarland, who for the past year has headed the cadre of typesetters that pumps every word of SI's editorial content into our computers each week. But while he tends to our writers' verbiage with great care, McFarland most cherishes lines that have been written by, or about, a shadowy British eccentric, one Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe, a.k.a. Baron Corvo. McFarland's collection of Corviana, one of the largest private assemblages in the world, now includes at least one first edition of every book the quirky Englishman ever wrote, plus translations, magazine articles, manuscripts, letters and biographies. McFarland once flew from New York to London to pick up one of the six known copies of a Corvo novel, Don Renato, and his ambition is to secure a copy of every edition of every book known to contain a reference to Corvo. The collection now takes up considerable safe-deposit space in the vaults of Manhattan's Amalgamated Bank of N.Y.
"I had always collected books, but never specialized," McFarland says. "Then, in 1974, I picked up a 75¢ paperback on New York's Fourth Avenue. I thought I was reading a book by John Addington Symonds, but it turned out to be The Quest for Corvo, by A.J.A. Symons." McFarland was hooked: Perhaps because he is a typesetter, he found it refreshing that among Corvo's eccentricities was his insistence that his published works retain words he'd made up, based on Greek and Latin roots. He wrote in an elegant, medieval-looking script, and McFarland recalls that someone once said that if a printer had modeled a typeface on Corvo's handwriting he'd have invented an exciting new font.
Before he came to SI in 1975, McFarland spent six years in TIME magazine's letters department, where he figures he waded through a quarter of a million missives from readers. Plenty were dillies, as anyone who has held such a job can tell you, but, he also says, "We'd get letters from congressmen and heads of state. Prince Sihanouk used to write all the time."
McFarland, 49, took his masters at the University of Tennessee and taught English there as a graduate fellow, but he also has a lifelong passion for music. A tenor, he studied privately with three different voice teachers in New York and spent two years as secretary to conductor Julius Rudel, then director of the New York City Opera.
McFarland does not seriously regret abandoning his singing career, the physical demands of which, he says, equal those on a top athlete: "Your body is your instrument, and you have to take care of it constantly. The whole point is to sing well and make it seem easy, but you look at a singer closely and he's sweating. Caruso lost five pounds every time he sang."
McFarland does retain one great singing ambition: to perform the national anthem at Yankee Stadium. "Ninety percent of the human race can't negotiate it," he points out, adding, "I would go back into training for the chance."
George, are you listening?
McFARLAND AT THE BANK, VISITING HIS BOOKS