The Strand Bookstore, which opened on Fourth Avenue in 1927, now takes up 55,000 square feet on Broadway and 12th and has ’18 miles of New, Used, Rare and Out of Print Books’ in stock. The novelist David Markson, who was born in Albany in 1927 and died in his West Village apartment last month, spent more than a few of his intervening hours at the Strand. (Here’s a short clip of him speaking there.) Still, it was a shock to walk into the Strand last week and find the contents of his personal library scattered among the stacks.
A shock, in part, because Markson’s work relied so heavily on other books: Schonberg’s Lives of the Great Composers (I paid $7. 50 for Markson’s copy), Wittgenstein’s correspondence (Paul Engelmann’s Letters from Wittgenstein with a Memoir, $12.50), Robert Graves’s edition of the Greek myths ($30 for the two-volume Penguin hardback). There are too many inscribed books for any one civilian to buy; most have notes, check marks, underlined passages. I’d guess that a few of them – especially the more heavily annotated ones – belong in a proper archive. And yet, here they are: hundreds of hardbacks (the only paperback I could find was a copy of Walter Abish’s How German is It?, sent to Markson with the author’s compliments), some of them with price tags covering Markson’s name, as if the buyers were afraid that his signature would somehow diminish their value.
I’d heard about the haul from Jeff Severs, who teaches at the University of British Columbia. He’d heard about it from a student who’d stumbled on Markson’s copy of Don DeLillo’s White Noise. ‘my copy of white noise apparently used to belong to david markson (who i had to look up),’ the student had written.
he wrote some notes in the margin: a check mark by some passages, ‘no’ by other, ‘bullshit’ or ‘ugh get to the point’ by others. i wanted to call him up and tell him his notes are funny, but then i realized he DIED A MONTH AGO. bummer.
‘That’s amazing,’ Jeff had replied. ‘Did he write his name in the front or something? Did you buy it secondhand recently – as in, his family sold off his library?’
yeah he wrote his name inside the front cover and the cashiers at the strand said they have his whole collection. favorite comments: ‘oh god the pomposity, the bullshit!’, ‘oh i get it, it’s a sci-fi novel!’ and ‘big deal’.
That night, I put $262.81 on the credit card and brought three shopping bags home to my fourth-floor walk-up: Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood ($7.50), Yeats’s Essays and Introductions ($15), Leslie Fiedler’s Life and Death in the American Novel ($10), Tristram Shandy ($5); 27 books in all. My new collection includes old Modern Library editions (Joyce, Kafka, Balzac, Pater, Lao-tse and Tacitus), undergraduate philosophy texts (the future novelist paid more attention to Kant and Hume than to Erasmus, Descartes and Hegel) and Joyce’s Selected Letters (with brackets around the dirty bits). Thanks to Markson, I now own Stephen Joyce’s Modern Library edition of Gogol’s Dead Souls. A gift? Did Markson borrow the book and fail return it? Or did he run across it himself on a visit to the Strand and wonder how it had ended up there?
My friend Ethan paid not enough money for a heavily annotated edition of Hart Crane’s poetry, an even more heavily annotated T.S. Eliot, and a beautiful volume of Melville’s shorter works, with every one of Bartleby the Scrivener’s ‘I would prefer not to’s underlined. (‘Melville, late along, possessed no copies of his own books,’ Markson wrote in Vanishing Point.)
The next day, another friend emailed to say he’d spent $93 on Ellmann’s biography of Joyce, Pound’s letters to Joyce, Hardy’s poems, Spenser’s Poetical Works and A.J. Ayer’s Wittgenstein. ‘I found some Lowry,’ he wrote. ‘The letters and poems, but left those for someone who cares more about him than I do.’ Pound’s Cantos, Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary and Balzac’s Lost Illusions are all still in the stacks, at reasonable prices.