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Lost libraries

The strange afterlife of authors’ book collections

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By Craig Fehrman
September 19, 2010

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A few weeks ago, Annecy Liddell was flipping through a used copy of Don DeLillo’s ”White Noise” when she saw that the previous owner had written his name inside the cover: David Markson. Liddell bought the novel anyway and, when she got home, looked the name up on Wikipedia.

Markson, she discovered, was an important novelist himself--an experimental writer with a cult following in the literary world. David Foster Wallace considered Markson’s ”Wittgenstein’s Mistress”--a novel that had been rejected by 54 publishers--”pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country.” When it turned out that Markson had written notes throughout Liddell’s copy of ”White Noise,” she posted a Facebook update about her find. ”i wanted to call him up and tell him his notes are funny, but then i realized he DIED A MONTH AGO. bummer.”

The news of Liddell’s discovery quickly spread through Facebook and Twitter’s literary districts, and Markson’s fans realized that his personal library, about 2,500 books in all, had been sold off and was now anonymously scattered throughout The Strand, the vast Manhattan bookstore where Liddell had bought her book. And that’s when something remarkable happened: Markson’s fans began trying to reassemble his books. They used the Internet to coordinate trips to The Strand, to compile a list of their purchases, to swap scanned images of his notes, and to share tips. (The easiest way to spot a Markson book, they found, was to look for the high-quality hardcovers.) Markson’s fans told stories about watching strangers buy his books without understanding their origin, even after Strand clerks pointed out Markson’s signature. They also started asking questions, each one a variation on this: 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.”

Updike would seem to have agreed. After his death in 2009, Harvard’s Houghton Library bought Updike’s archive, more than 125 shelves of material that he assembled himself. Updike chose to include 1,500 books, but that number is inflated by his own work--at least one copy of every edition of every book in every language it was issued. ”He was not so comprehensive in the books that he read,” says Leslie Morris, Harvard’s curator for the Updike archive. In fact, Updike was known to donate old books to church book sales and to hand them out to friends’ wives. Late in life, he made a deal with Mark Stolle, who owns a bookstore in Manchester-by-the-Sea. ”He would call me once his garage was filled,” Stolle remembers, ”and I would go over and buy them.”

While he didn’t seem to value them, Updike’s books begin to show how and why an author’s library does matter. In his copy of Tom Wolfe’s ”A Man in Full,” which was one of Stolle’s garage finds, Updike wrote comments like ”adjectival monotony” and ”semi cliché in every sentence.” A comparison with Updike’s eventual New Yorker review suggests that authors will write things in their books that they won’t say in public.

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. Today, academic libraries across the country own Twain books in which ”REDDING LIBRARY” has been stamped in purple ink.

But the 1950s also marked the start of a shift in the way many scholars and librarians appraised an author’s books. They began trying to reassemble the most famous authors’ libraries--or, in worst-case scenarios like Twain’s, to compile detailed lists of every book a writer had owned. The effort and ingenuity behind these lists can be astounding, as scholars will sift through diaries, receipts, even old library call slips. A good example is Alan Gribben’s ”Mark Twain’s Library: A Reconstruction,” which runs to two volumes and took nine years to complete.

This raises an obvious question: Why not make the list of an author’s books before dispersing them? The answer, usually, is time. Book dealers, Wronoski says, can’t assemble scholarly lists while also moving enough inventory to stay in business. When Wallace’s widow and his literary agent, Bonnie Nadell, sorted through his library, they sent only the books he had annotated to the Ransom Center. The others, more than 30 boxes’ worth, they donated to charity. There was no chance to make a list, Nadell says, because another professor needed to move into Wallace’s office. ”We were just speed skimming for markings of any kind.”

Still, the gap between the labor required on the front end and the back end can make such choices seem baffling and even--a curious charge to make when discussing archives--short-sighted. Libraries, for their part, must also allocate limited resources, and they do so based on a calculus of demand, precedent, and prestige. This means the big winners are historical authors (in the 1980s, Melville’s copy of Milton sold at an auction for $100,000) and those who fit into a library’s targeted specialties. ”We tend to focus on Harvard-educated authors,” Morris says. ”The Houghton Library is pretty much full and has been for the last 10 years.”

In David Markson’s case, the easiest explanation for why his books ended up at The Strand is that he wanted them to. Markson, who lived near the bookstore, would stop by three or four times a week. The Strand, in turn, hosted his book signings and maintained a table of his books, and Markson’s daughter, Johanna, says he frequently told her in his final years to take his books to The Strand. ”He said they’d take good care of us,” she says.

And so, after Johanna and her brother saved some books that were important to them--”I want my children to see what kind of reader their grandfather was,” Johanna says--a truck from The Strand picked up the rest, 63 boxes in all. Fred Bass, The Strand’s owner, says he had to break Markson’s library apart because of the size of his operation. ”We do it with most personal libraries,” Bass says. ”We don’t have room to set up special collections.”

Markson had sold books to The Strand before. In fact, over the years, he sold off his most valuable books and even small batches of his literary correspondence simply to make ends meet. Markson recalled in one interview that, when he asked Jack Kerouac to sign a book for him, Kerouac was so drunk he stabbed the pen through the front page. Bass said he personally looked through Markson’s books hoping to find items like this. ”But David had picked it pretty clean.”

Selling his literary past became a way for Markson to sustain his literary future. In ”Wittgenstein’s Mistress” and the four novels that followed, Markson abandoned characters and plots in favor of meticulously ordered allusions and historical anecdotes--a style he called ”seminonfictional semifiction.” That style, along with the skill with which he prosecuted it, explains both the size and the passion of Markson’s audience.

Markson’s late style also explains the special relevance of his library, and it’s a wonderful twist that these elements all came together in the campaign to crowdsource it. Through a Facebook group and an informal collection of blog posts, Markson’s fans have put together a representative sample of his books. The results won’t satisfy the scholarly completist, but they reveal the range of Markson’s reading--not just fiction and poetry, but classical literature, philosophy, literary criticism, and art history. They also illuminate aspects of Markson’s life (one fan got the textbooks Markson used while a graduate student) and his art (another got his copy of ”Foxe’s Book of Martyrs,” where Markson had underlined passages that resurface in his later novels). Most of all, they capture Markson’s mind as it plays across the page. In his copy of ”Agape Agape,” the final novel from postmodern wizard William Gaddis, Markson wrote: ”Monotonous. Tedious. Repetitious. One note, all the way through. Theme inordinately stale + old hat. Alas, Willie.”

Markson’s letters to and from Gaddis were one of the things he sold off--they’re now in the Gaddis collection at Washington University--but Johanna Markson says he left some papers behind. ”He always told us, ’When I die, that’s when I’ll be famous,’” she says, and she’s saving eight large bins full of Markson’s edited manuscripts, the note cards he used to write his late novels, and his remaining correspondence. A library like Ohio State’s, which specializes in contemporary fiction, seems like a good match. In fact, Geoffrey Smith, head of Ohio State’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, says he would have liked to look at Markson’s library, in addition to his papers. ”We would have been interested, to say the least,” Smith says.

But if Markson’s library--and a potential scholarly foothold--has been lost, other things have been gained. A dead man’s wishes have been honored. A few fans have been blessed. And an author has found a new reader. ”I’m glad I got that book,” Annecy Liddell says. ”I really wouldn’t know who Markson is if I hadn’t found that. I haven’t finished ‘White Noise’ yet but I’m almost done with ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress’--it’s weird and great and way more fun to read.”

By Craig Fehrman is working on a book about presidents and their books.