The Strange and Disorienting World of Authors’ Personal Libraries

Craig Fehrman’s new article “Lost Libraries” (at The Boston Globe) provides a fascinating overview of how author libraries — that is, the books, usually heavily annotated, that authors own — find their way into archives, and why those archives matter. Fehrman begins by detailing the strange case of recently-deceased novelist David Markson, whose personal library was kinda sorta reassembled by fans after a reader named Annecy Liddell bought Markson’s (cleverly-annotated) copy of Don DeLillo’s White Noise–

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?

Fehrman g0es on to point out that–

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.

Why does this matter? As Fehrman notes, “authors’ libraries serve as a kind of intellectual biography.” And while universities do their best to archive these materials, as Fehrman’s article reveals, much of what gets saved is left to chance. For instance, how did David Foster Wallace’s personal library get to the Harry Ransom Archive?

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.”

1 thought on “The Strange and Disorienting World of Authors’ Personal Libraries”

  1. Interesting post. Reminds me of something I just read in Cormac McCarthy’s Wall Street Journal interview. Not exactly on topic, but interesting nonetheless.

    WSJ: Why don’t you sign copies of “The Road”

    CM: There are signed copies of the book, but they all belong to my son John, so when he turns 18 he can sell them and go to Las Vegas or whatever. No, those are the only signed copies of the book.


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