John Lupia forwarded this article about the strange and sad fate of the libraries of many famous authors.
How could the books of one of this generation’s most interesting novelists end up on a bookstore’s dollar clearance carts?
What Markson’s fans had stumbled on was the strange and disorienting world of authors’ personal libraries. Most people might imagine that authors’ libraries matter--that scholars and readers should care what books authors read, what they thought about them, what they scribbled in the margins. But far more libraries get dispersed than saved. In fact, David Markson can now take his place in a long and distinguished line of writers whose personal libraries were quickly, casually broken down.
Herman Melville’s books? One bookstore bought an assortment for $120, then scrapped the theological titles for paper. Stephen Crane’s? His widow died a brothel madam, and her estate (and his books) were auctioned off on the steps of a Florida courthouse. Ernest Hemingway’s? To this day, all 9,000 titles remain trapped in his Cuban villa.
The issues at stake when libraries vanish are bigger than any one author and his books. An author’s library offers unique access to a mind at work, and their treatment provides a look at what exactly the literary world decides to value in an author’s life. John Wronoski, a longtime book dealer in Cambridge, has seen the libraries of many prestigious authors pass through his store without securing a permanent home. ”Most readers would see these names and think, ’My god, shouldn’t they be in a library?’” Wronoski says. ”But most readers have no idea how this system works.”
The literary world is full of treasures and talismans, not all of them especially literary--a lock of Byron’s hair has been sold at auction; Harvard has archived John Updike’s golf score cards.
For private collectors and university libraries, though, the most important targets are manuscripts and letters and research materials--what’s collectively known as an author’s papers--and rare, individually valuable books. In the first category, especially, things can get expensive. The University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center recently bought Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s papers for $5 million and Norman Mailer’s for $2.5 million. Compared to the papers, the author’s own library takes a back seat. ”An author’s books are important,” says Tom Staley, the Ransom Center’s director, ”but they’re no substitute for the manuscripts and the correspondence. The books are gravy.”
An author’s library, like anyone else’s, reveals something about its owner. Mark Twain loved to present himself as self-taught and under-read, but his carefully annotated books tell a different story. Books can offer hints about an author’s social and personal life. After David Foster Wallace’s death in 2008, the Ransom Center bought his papers and 200 of his books, including two David Markson novels that Wallace not only annotated, but also had Markson sign when they met in New York in 1990. Most of all, though, authors’ libraries serve as a kind of intellectual biography. Melville’s most heavily annotated book was an edition of John Milton’s poems, and it proves he reread ”Paradise Lost” while struggling with ”Moby-Dick.”
And yet these libraries rarely survive intact. The reasons for this can range from money problems to squabbling heirs to poorly executed auctions. Twain’s library makes for an especially cringe-worthy case study because, unlike a lot of now-classic authors, he saw no ebb in his reputation--and, thus, no excuse in the handling of his books. In 1908, Twain donated 500 books to the library he helped establish in Redding, Conn. After Twain’s death in 1910, his daughter, Clara, gave the library another 1,700 books.
The Redding library began circulating Twain’s books, many of which contained his notes, and souvenir hunters began cutting out every page that had Twain’s handwriting. This was bad enough, but in the 1950s the library decided to thin its inventory, unloading the unwanted books on a book dealer who soon realized he now possessed more than 60 titles annotated by Mark Twain.
To read the complete article, see:
The strange afterlife of authors’ book collections
Wayne Homren, Editor
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