Sunday, September 19, 2010

Lost Authors' Libraries

The Boston Globe Ideas section today features an interesting article on authors' libraries being dispersed, both during the authors' lifetimes, but most especially as part of estate settlement. Craig Fehrman writes, focusing largely on a recent case that came about most unusually. Annecy Liddell examined a used copy of a book at The Strand, a famous book store in Manhattan. As she paged through the book, she noticed that the previous owner had written his name in the front. Then she discovered that the owner had made marginal notes all through the book. She decided to buy the book anyway, and went home and looked up the previous owner on Wikipedia. She discovered that her book had been owned and annotated by a famous, though cultish novelist, David Markson, considered the most important experimental novelist in American fiction.

Ms. Liddell posted a note to her Facebook page about her discovery. And fans of David Markson stumbled on the note, deducing that Markson, who had died recently, had had his personal library dispersed to the Strand. The fans used Facebook and Twitter to coordinate their purchases at The Strand. They made notes of what they found and bought by Markson. They compiled lists of the books they managed to retrieve and swap scanned images of the pages with annotations, and stories of their adventures.

The author of this newspaper article explains that, though the fans of Markson were stunned that his annotated books should end up in the clearance bins at a bookstore, and scattered to the winds, to uncaring purchasers, that the "system" does not usually care about authors' libraries. Even authors themselves do not seem to care about keeping their libraries intact or passing their annotations along. In fact, Markson seems to have planned to have most of his 2,500 volume library sent to The Strand, where they had hosted many readings for him over the years, and he had sold off parts of his collection over the years to finance his life. Other authors who seem to be unconcerned about scattering their libraries include John Updike, who gave many of his books to church book sales, friends, and a nearby book store.

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), gave 500 of his books to help found the public library in Redding, Connecticut. And after his death, Clemens' daughter, Clara donated another 1,700 of his personal library books to that public library. Many of the patrons discovered Clemens' annotations in the books and began cutting the pages with his writing as souvenirs. But there were still many volumes with his notes intact. After the Redding Public Library weeded, and discarded many of Clemens' old volumes, a book dealer realized what he had, and academic libraries across the country managed to purchase the books. Now these libraries hold Clemens books with his marginalia, with purple library stamps marked Redding Public Library.

Starting in the 1950's scholars began to value the markings that some authors made in their books. For a few, more high profile authors, there are lists of books that once made up their personal libraries, and some scholars even try to figure all the books that an author may have read, whether they owned the book or not. There is one for Twain, for instance, created with enormous effort. Scholars sift through purchase receipts, library check out slips, diaries. Craig Fehrman asks, why not try to create the list before the library is dismantled? He answers that the estate handlers are often under great time pressure -- to clear out an office for the next tenant, for example. I suppose, they may not always know that the author will be interesting to posterity, either, though David Markson turns out to have told his children that he would become famous when he died and to hold onto a certain number of his books until after his funeral.

Quite an interesting article, and an interesting insight into writers and their pressures and quirks! As a librarian and a reader, someone who works with archivists and has been an English major, this was fascinating stuff.

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