Friday September 24th, 2010

Keeping the Books

After David Markson died earlier this year, many books from his personal collection started showing up in random places on the shelves of The Strand, New York’s great repository of used (and new) books. There was a bit of uproar at the time (if there can be a bit of uproar) from those who wondered how it could possibly happen that an acclaimed American writer’s books ended up in the hands of various Strand diggers rather than a protected home, perhaps in the academy. No one seemed interested in investigating whether this was simply Markson’s desire. But Craig Fehrman has:

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.

That comes from a broader piece Fehrman wrote about authors’ libraries for the Boston Globe, in which he considers the fate of personal collections when famous authors die:

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.

I’m not sure I agree that libraries are inherently interesting or revealing. I’m not a famous writer, but I’m a big reader, and my shelves are home to several books I didn’t love, many books I haven’t read, and a few books temporarily on loan from friends. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’m not sure they are so interesting that an author like Markson shouldn’t be allowed to give them to his favorite shop down the block. Fehrman writes about the efforts—noble or crazy, depending on your perspective—of some scholars to retroactively compose a list of all the books an author 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.”

On his own blog, Fehrman expanded on his article with an interesting post about Melville, and about the strategies employed by university archivists looking for a big catch.