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David Markson's library for sale, and going fast

July 29, 2010 |  8:14 am

Markson_babel

When David Markson, author of the postmodern classic "Wittgenstein's Mistress," died in New York in June at age 82, he left behind a vast library of books. In the dissolution of Markson's worldly possessions, more than 50 cartons -- holding 50 books each -- ended up at the Strand Bookstore in New York. A massive, three-level store, the Strand sells new, used and collectible books. It was a place that Markson had frequented. "He was in the store three, four times a week," said owner Fred Bass. "I miss him -- we used to have nice conversations when he came."

The books Markson owned, for the most part, wound up being shelved simply as used books, some sold on outdoor carts for a dollar. But a handful of readers, who have been combing the store for books with Markson's name inside, consider them collectibles. Some wondered why the books were separated, why the whole lot didn't wind up at a university library or other institution that collected writers' papers.

Alex Abramovich, who wrote about finding Markson's books at the Strand at the London Review of Books blog, has helped to set up a Facebook group as a way of putting Markson's library together again; ideally, he's said, he would like to reunite it as "a physical thing."

But, Bass explained, "David wanted the books recirculated at the Strand. And really, if you face it, a university library, what are they going to do with them? They end up storing them. I think he realized that. This way, his books are in circulation."

Ethan Nosowsky, an editor who joined Abramovich on a Markson-focused Strand shopping trip, said: "It seemed to us that many of these books would be of interest to future scholars, especially given the bibliographic obsessions and citations that characterized his late novels."

Not only do many of the books include Markson's bookplate or his signature, as a reader, he also went wild with the marginalia. Many of his books are heavily annotated. In his copy of Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," for example, Markson underlined every instance of Bartleby saying, "I would prefer not to" -- and in case you haven't read the book, Bartleby said that a lot

Some books reveal Markson as a writer in constant dialogue with what he read. He kept a pen or pencil in hand, ready to translate the Latin in T.S. Eliot's inscription or to engage with Kierkegaard. And, notably, to kvetch about Don Delillo's "White Noise" in its pages. His notes, which the London Review of Books has posted, include:

“This book may have set the all-time record for boredom. At 1/3 of the length, it might have worked.”

“Awful awful awful”

“We got the point of this stuff a long time ago. A long time ago. It’s now BORING! And has been.”

“Are we supposed to believe this?”

“If this were not my first Delillo, I probably would have quit 100 pages ago.”

“This ‘ordinariness’ is just that -- ordinary, i.e., a bore. Presumably it is meant as satire. Except, dammit, satire should be amusing!”

“Boring boring boring”

(And twice on one page) “Oh God”

Nosowsky, who called Markson "woefully unknown," said, "It was thrilling to check this stuff out and to spend some time rereading T.S. Eliot or Melville, or Joyce's dirty letters to Nora, through Markson's eyes."

On Wednesday, Abramovich found that many of the Markson books that had been spotted and mentioned in Internet posts were gone. Only a few -- including an $80 four-volume collection of Greek tragedies -- remained on shelves. But Thursday morning, a staff member confirmed that they were still going through the Markson collection. There are more books to come.

Christopher Sorrentino, a writer and the son of writer Gilbert Sorrentino, has considered the question of how, ultimately, to handle his father's library: "I consider it not to be part of his personal estate but his literary estate." Gilbert Sorrentino did not, like Markson, mark up his books. Christopher adds, "You can imagine the amount of interest I believe a collection of underlined and marginally annotated books owned by David Markson would hold, particularly since his last several books, from 'Springer's Progress' onward, depended heavily on his reading. In one sense, that library contains a working draft of his later work."

The Strand's Fred Bass said Markson's library was "an incredible collection, from an intellectual and literary point of view. It's books he used. It was things that he had read and kept because they were important books. I was surprised at the scope of the library: art, philosophy -- and, of course, a number of books by Wittgenstein."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

twitter.com/paperhaus

Photo: David Markson's copy of Isaac Babel's "Collected Stories." Credit: Alex Abramovich 


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