25 August 2011

Collectable annotated books

We’re talking here about the more distinctive outraged responses by anonymous writers or minor authors (identified elsewhere in the book) to an opinion or a fact. Or perhaps passages of creative writing on blank pages. Or drawings. Or anything else, apart obviously from phone numbers, addresses (although these can be intriguing), calculations, train and bus times, shopping lists, book titles and recipes for soups.

Such books might make a good collection and I suspect that book dealers who discover such annotations in their books secrete them away for future research. Or if they don’t they should do.

Perhaps we could start with creative writing. In pencil on the back endpaper of my first edition of Wyndham Lewis’s Men Without Art (1934) I found this intriguing snatch of fiction, perhaps the beginning of a projected short story, and probably written in the pub alluded to:
‘ A woman with short fair hair cut in a fringe straight across her forehead and round dark blue sleepy eyes. Forty, fortyish face and ugly pointed turned up nose and a smile sometimes sheepish & sly & sometimes giggly & childish. She has a small face of a girl in a close fitting hat and a light blue coat. She & her young man were lunching in a pub, obliged to sit at a table, when a tall man sat back staring at the ceiling & blowing smoke between a hole in his front teeth, eyes half closed, all ears open to anything they might say, eyes half closed.
She did not notice this or mind, but he hated it. He was part silenced. He ordered a drink for her—whisky & ginger ale. “ What I had last night “ ---this is an expedition in sin---giggled after she had drunk a bit & kept glancing at him . She is awed at the pub. He is jaded, bored by it. She looks disinterestedly at him… ‘

Will I ever discover who wrote this? Perhaps someone out there recognises the style…

Writing in books polarises opinion, but Heather Jackson, the academic who wrote the excellent Marginalia is not alone in feeling that writing in books which is witty and/or adds to the debate deserves to be preserved. If we should rightly condemn the early twentieth century librarian who dutifully rubbed out George Eliot’s many comments in pencil in her books, why should we reject the equally perceptive remarks that ‘disfigure‘ a book just because they are anonymous ? As for doctored library books, it is more than probable that the puritans of Islington Library who publically tut-tutted over Halliwell and Orton, had a private chuckle over the humour displayed by the ‘vandals’, and at a time when the Pop Art of Peter Blake et al was being appreciated, may even have admired their creativity.

Indeed, on the issue of Halliwell’s book vandalism, a few years ago I reported in Rare Book Review on the collage offered for sale at an auction in Cambridge in October 2005. The artwork, signed and dated 1966, and measuring 50.5 x 40.5 cm, comprised fragments of book and magazine illustrations that suggested a large demonic face. Doubtless psychoanalysts would have something to say about the future murderer’s state of mind at the time he made it. Surprisingly, bidders weren’t sufficiently impressed and the work remained unsold at £1,600 (est. £2,500 - £3,000).

As for scribbles, underlinings, question marks and exclamation marks--- good when the book is identifiably Iris Murdoch’s copy of Sartre or Blake’s copy of Reynolds’s Discourses on Art, or John Betjeman’s own Bartholomew maps that he used as Editor of the Shell Guides, which I viewed at auction, but tragically did not bid for; not so enviable when the question marks etc., in a battered paperback copy of Yeats’ Selected Poems were put there by some student wannabe novelist who ended up as a regional sales manager for Argos. [R. M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin. Above is David Foster Wallace's copy of Cormac McCarthy's 'Suttree' held at the Harry Ransom Library-- for which much thanks. Below is a book annotated by Charles Darwin.

Years back at an auction in the West Country I bought (with the legendary Roger Elliott) a big lot of books, some of which had come from Max Gate, the home of Thomas Hardy. In there were some early psychology text books annotated by Hardy. Roger sold them for us on the strength that Hardy's notes were all about the mental state of his first wife Emma Lavinia Gifford. I also had Graham Greene's copy of 'Children of the Sun' - a book about the Brideshead generation with many notes by GG. Seem to recall getting more that £500 over 20 years ago. Less dear was Handasyde Buchanan's copy of Sykes book on Evelyn Waugh with Handy's sloshed notes about Sykes in the margin, things like 'snivelling little shit' etc., For $30 in Santa Cruz I bought a book about Robert Heinlein by H.Bruce Franklin --Heinlein had annotated the book extensively with pencilled marginal linings, underlinings, questions and exclamation marks and a few notes. The clue was that the book was presented to him by Franklin 'with deep respect and admiration... and a few disagreements.' Sold a few weeks later after some research for $500...I could go on bragging, this a fascinating and profitable area of collecting.


Roger Allen said...

About twenty years ago I came across some books bt William Empsonin a bookshop in Oxford,in bad condition and heavily and argumentatively annotated. What neither I nor the bookseller knew was the annotations were Empson's own.

Quaint and Curious Volumes said...

One thing I've noticed is that most books with lots of underlinings and writings only have them in the first one or two chapters. The rest of the book will be clean as the driven snow.

Once a relative bought me a used book as a gift and was distressed to find that it was full of marginalia. I, on the other hand, was intrigued to see what someone else had considered worthy of commenting on.

Fnarf said...

I have a copy of Bernard DeVoto's first book, a novel called "The Crooked Mile", with a very long dedication (five pages long) in the blank or mostly pages in the front to what one gathers was an attractive young female student or acquaintance of his. It's nothing salacious, just rather long-winded and padded with rhetorical flourishes. To be honest, he sounds as if he might have been a little tipsy at the time. It was added many years after the book was published, by which time he had become a famous historian and essayist.

I keep meaning to look up the young lady's name (I don't have the book in front of me here) and see if she appears in Wallace Stegner's "The Uneasy Chair" or elsewhere, but I'm lazy.

Anonymous said...

Great post - the Wallace-McCarthy example is fascinating in particular. On a related note, I have some illustrated books which gifted owners have "pornographized" - this can't be an unknown phenomenon?

Edwin Moore said...

Yes great post, love it. Was it Beerbohm who suggested annotating your books with the odd exclamation and question work and mysterious references such as 'cf Livy'?

Roger Allen said...

Flann O'Brien, in his role of Myles nagCopaleen, I think, Edwin.

Abdullah said...


A favourite activity of Philip Larkin and Monica Jones. (The works of Iris Murdoch were a regular target - 'Under the Nethergarments'.) Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell were jailed for doing the same thing to library books.

Anonymous said...

The mystery marginalia in Men Without Art sounds Cyril Connolly-ish to me. The only thing I've read of his is The Rock Pool but it reminds me of that.