Complicated Lives: Association Copies as Artifactual Evidence

Tom Congalton

Wednesday, Oct 26, 2011

[Delivered at the Caxton Club, March 19, 2011]

When I was asked to give this talk, it was suggested that I have a title, and I found this one suitably grand:

Complicated Lives: Association Copies as Artifactual Evidence; or an examination of how association copies can reinforce and expand our knowledge of authors and their familiars, with a further look at the alchemical processes whereby booksellers and collectors attempt to transform ink into gold.

Well, as I hadn’t written it yet, I’m not sure that that this speech has anything to do with this title, but thank you in advance for indulging me. In any event…

I think the recent weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth concerning the demise of the book – a nearly perfect invention that has endured essentially unchanged for nearly half a millennium – is rather greatly exaggerated.

It may well be true that eventually the book as we know it will no longer be the primary method of information delivery in an increasingly pixelated world. What will, however, help the book survive seems obvious enough: copy specificity.

Once it has been sold into the marketplace, every copy of every book becomes an association copy. Indeed, as anyone who has ever opened a box of books at a new bookstore or a library can attest, even before books reach the market place, they have become individuals, bearing the marks of human contact.

Once it has entered the marketplace, each book becomes associated with its handlers and readers. The book might become associated with a proud reader who carefully marks it with his or her ownership signature, rubber stamp, or bookplate. The book could be owned by a diligent student who is supplied with a yellow highlighter and who isn’t afraid to use it. It might be given to a wonderstruck child with a state-of-the-art box of crayons. Or even, in more cases than we might like to admit, it might become associated with a small, angry dog, or perhaps even with some other less sentient forms of the non-literate universe.

These types of associations might prove nutritious fodder for both scholars and insects. But in the vast majority of cases, at least as they affect us as book collectors, they are usually of secondary importance.

Indeed in some cases books can become association copies despite their lack of interaction with their owners. In one case in the early 1990s, I purchased a good size library of modern literary first editions - mostly poetry and plays - that had come from a private collector in St. Louis. Most of the books had been purchased new between the 1940s and the 1960s. The collector had purchased two copies of each title, not marked them in any way, and had then triple-shelved the books in bookcases that were then covered with thick black cloth drapes. The difference in the colors of the dust jackets of these protected, vibrant, almost radioactive copies that hadn’t seen the light of day in several decades, and what were at that time considered very fine copies, was remarkable.

I offered these books for sale at the 1994 Los Angeles Antiquarian Book Fair in partnership with the Massachusetts bookseller Ken Lopez, marked with the highest prices that I could possibly imagine, and some of my detractors might intimate that I have a very active imagination indeed.

But despite my best efforts to price myself out of the market, I can truly say that this was the only instance that I’ve experienced where my book fair booth immediately became the subject of a feeding frenzy by other dealers and collectors. Recognizing the extraordinary condition of these copies, they made totteringly high stacks of books, all the while chortling merrily about my apparent lack of imagination when it came to pricing these particular copies.

Pretty soon the modern first edition cadre of the rare book trade was a-buzz about the “beautiful books,” and even now a dealer or collector will occasionally show me one of the “beautiful books” from that library. A similar instance occurred when the Heritage Book Shop, and through them the collector-turned-bookseller Maurice Neville, bought the collection of Norman Unger. These were perfectly preserved, often signed copies of books that still appear occasionally on the market, and are thus referred to by veteran booksellers and collectors, in a self-satisfied and knowing way, as “Unger copies.”

Thus even books with no marks of association can become, by virtue of their condition, default association copies.

But what are the types of more conventional association copies that generally DO interest us? I probably needn’t tell you, because most collectors can identify them right away: books that stimulate an immediate and undeniable visceral reaction. And here I use the term collectors to encompass all those who accumulate such things: private collectors, librarians, booksellers, and in some cases scholars.

One bookseller of my friendly acquaintance includes in his catalog “terms of sale” the following return policy: “Everything is unconditionally guaranteed to be thrilling, and may be promptly returned for insufficient thrill.” Whether he has achieved this state of excitement with his offerings may be debatable, but I think we all pretty much understand what he means.

When I was a feckless teenage book collector, the antiquarian bookseller nearest to me in geographical proximity had a modest stock of thoroughly pedestrian association copies that were castoffs from the association-rich Sentimental Library of the songwriter Harry B. Smith. I was fascinated by these books, and I have never stopped being fascinated by association copies.

Certainly in such recent auction sales as the 2002 Christie’s sale of the library of Roger Rechler, and of the library of Maurice Neville in 2004 at Sotheby’s, both of which had been formed with an eye towards association copies, prices were startlingly high. In a time when few 20th Century books had ascended to that level, both sales had several books that sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Thus the market for such association copies was not then, and is not now, in question.

Great association copies bear some, often obvious, but occasionally subtle evidence of that books interaction with its creator, the creator’s editors, colleagues, family members, friends, or other luminaries or celebrities, which in turn provokes a profound reaction in the collector.

Why do booksellers and collectors dote upon association copies, and why do scholars crave access to them. Why do librarians and curators seek them out for exhibit and display?

In the case of booksellers, the answer is probably pretty obvious - proof of ownership or other signs of use by significant contemporaries can usually set a book apart. This makes the association copy not only easier to sell, but more importantly, it makes it easier to sell for MORE money. And often, depending on the significance of the association, it makes it easier to sell for MUCH MORE money.

I suspect my rare bookselling colleagues will not accuse me of revealing any trade secrets when I mention that this is a set of circumstance that we rare booksellers like a lot.

Collectors obviously are of a similar mind, although perhaps less immediately concerned with the pecuniary advantages. After all, they are usually the ones who are providing the “MUCH MORE money.” As a dealer, I cannot speak for collectors unequivocally. However, I am reasonably certain that when a collector sets out to compile a collection, he or she does not usually do so with the primary motivation of assembling one that is distinguished only by its unparalleled mediocrity.

Consequently, the intelligent and successful collector is usually either on the look out for, or at the very least receptive to, copies of books in their chosen field that will distinguish their collection from those that have either preceded them, or which are contemporarily being assembled, often by colleagues, enemies, and/or friendly rivals. The most obvious attributes that will contribute to this goal are either copies of books in superior condition, or copies that bear superior associations.

Your rival may have a beautiful copy of a cherished volume, but if you have the dog-eared copy that has been heavily annotated by the author, or the copy fawningly inscribed by the author to the book’s dedicatee or spouse, you are likely to be able to claim significant pride of place over your rival.

While it bears little upon the day’s topic, let me take a minute to recommend to you Booth Tarkington’s 1937 novel Rumbin Galleries, a guilty pleasure that will help one to better understand the psychology of rival collectors. The eponymous Rumbin is a kindhearted and jolly art and antique dealer of unspecified middle-European origins, who is filled with canny observations about the collectibles marketplace, which he imparts to his attractive, young female assistant “Georchie.”

Rumbin’s Secondary goal in life is to find the “IDEAL” client – a wealthy businessperson with no time, too much money, and a competitive nature. His Primary goal is to find two “IDEAL” clients, and then to introduce the two “IDEAL” clients to each other so that the competition can begin in earnest.

What about scholars? Scholars seek association copies because it is their job to do so. Despite its prevalence, no one that I’m aware of is enamored of repetitive scholarship. In examining the past, scholars must constantly wade in what one imagines is a steadily diminishing pool of new information about any well-researched subject.

However, a single prosaic inscription in a book, or the annotations in an author’s copy of his or her own work might propel a scholar on an entirely new path of inquiry that had been previously overlooked.

These annotations or inscriptions themselves might even have an actual influence on the life of the author and his friends. An extreme example is the relationship of Paul Theroux to his writing mentor V.S. Naipaul.

Perhaps Theroux’s rarest and most avidly sought after book is an early scholarly study he wrote about Naipaul, entitled V.S. Naipaul: An Introduction to His Work, published in 1972 in London by Andre Deutsch and in New York, from British sheets, by the Africana Publishing Corporation.

Theroux had, as one might fully expect, inscribed copies of his early works to his mentor. However, at some point in Naipaul’s frequent travels, his second wife, either unaware of, or unmindful of the importance of the association and relationship between the two authors, had inadvertently consigned a number of these inscribed copies off to a local charity jumble sale.

The rest is predictable. The books were purchased by a perspicacious book scout.

Eventually they made their way into the British first edition trade, and then sold through a catalog to the aforementioned Massachusetts bookseller Ken Lopez.

Ken put them in his own catalog, complete with the substantial prices that such association copies might be expected to command, and sold them in due course. Both Paul Theroux and his brother, the author Alex Theroux, are known to occasionally buy books from first edition dealers, and clearly Paul Theroux came to know of Ken’s offerings. He apparently considered it a betrayal on Naipaul’s part, and recounted his surprise in his subsequent book, Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents, which was largely devoted, it seemed to me at least, to repudiating his former mentor.

In the book, Theroux, while not mentioning Lopez specifically by name, quoted his catalog description verbatim and referred to modern first edition dealers as “the rag and bone trade of the rare book world,” the implication being that Lopez had snookered Mrs. Naipaul, underpaying for the books, and marking them up extravagantly. This was enough to cause Lopez to consult an attorney and threaten to file suit against the publisher and author unless these statements were corrected. Apparently Theroux agreed, presumably under duress, with his publisher’s decision that certain statements would be altered in subsequent hardcover and paperback editions.

A letter that Lopez then sent to Theroux, thanking him for agreeing to the changes, was later returned to Lopez with an unsigned postscript written in a hand very similar to Theroux’s, essentially saying that as Lopez characterizes it, and here you’ll please excuse me: f-you, it was the lawyers who agreed to the changes.

As any good bookseller would do, Ken subsequently included the letter in his next catalog with a suitable explanation and priced at $150, soon thereafter receiving approximately 100 orders for it..

Thus proving that book collectors do indeed pay attention to booksellers’ catalogs when there is a bargain to be had.

Librarians often purchase association copies in pursuit of their mandates to provide material that will attract scholars to their institutions, as well as to augment and support existing collections. Not only do deep collections act as magnets to professors, scholars, and students, but association copies can also be of particular value when it comes time to mount exhibitions that highlight the libraries mission and reinforce the depth and importance of their holdings. There is nothing like an inscription to the author’s spouse, a letter to the object of one’s romantic affection, or an inscription to a colleague or rival to provide insight into an author’s emotions, or to illustrate the humanity of a subject who might not otherwise be so easily knowable.

G. Thomas Tanselle in his lecture on associations copies this past January, adapted in part from his introduction to Other People’s Books: Association Copies and the Stories They Tell, argued convincingly, to me at least, that when considering association copies, one is best served by inclusiveness. It would be repetitive for me to take up the argument, and futile for me to try to improve upon it. However, I do concur that whatever leads us to a greater understanding of a book and its author or subject should be included under the term “association copy.”

In my recent Catalog 161: Association Copies and All Things that are Associated with Them, we did our best to adopt a broad interpretation. Among the books offered were some that were arguably important: L. Frank Baum’s first children’s book, Mother Goose in Prose, inscribed to his mother; a dedication copy of Eleanor Roosevelt’s This I Rememberinscribed to her son Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr.; Hart Crane’s own copy of his first book, White BuildingsHarold Pinter’s play The Homecoming, inscribed to his wife, Vivien Merchant, who also performed the lead role in the play; the dedication copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s first hardcover novel Islands in the Sky; and Thomas Jefferson’s own copy of Neilson’s Greek Exercises with 42 corrections in his hand.

Others were perhaps less important, or even perhaps a bit quizzical, but which still might be capable of arousing the collectors interest: Tom Mix’s copy of a western novel, Apache Devil by Edgar Rice Burroughs; Frank Capra’s autobiography The Name Above the Title inscribed to Joe DiMaggio; Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative inscribed to Dinah Shore; and a Booth Tarkington novel inscribed to Groucho Marx.

We even offered books inscribed by the authors Paul Theroux and Alex Theroux to their sister, Mary.

I’ll bet she’s in trouble!

I further believe that the definition of association “copies” should be broadened to allow non-book objects and I will give you a prosaic and somewhat odd example of something that I thought was worth preserving for its associative value.

At a small regional book fair, another dealer offered me an empty cardboard box with a mailing label that had been mailed to Willa Catherby her publisher Alfred A. Knopf. The postmark was clearly visible (20th of December of 1945), and I was mostly just curious what Knopf had sent Cather, the two most obvious candidates being either books or because of the near-holiday date, perhaps a fruitcake.

My curiosity got the better of me, and $350 later, I owned an empty cardboard box.

The box was fragile, so much so that I despaired of transporting it home. Thus, I immediately commissioned a local bookbinder, also exhibiting at the fair, to build a clamshell box to house it, investing another $175, and creating the curiously Zen-like conundrum of commissioning an empty box whose sole purpose was to store another empty box.

After all this was done, I spent many hours utilizing the same methods that the handsome prince must have employed with the glass slipper whilst in pursuit of Cinderella.

I auditioned all of the Willa Cather books in a certain date range that I could lay hands on in order to determine if they would fit in the box.

Eventually I completed my inconclusive research. The most likely guess was it had housed two copies of an illustrated edition of Death Comes for the Archbishop but who knows? It could have been the fruitcake.

I finally offered the box (or perhaps more accurately, I offered the boxes) for $875 to a university library that I thought would be the appropriate repository for it, only to be told that the library did not collect “non-book artifacts.” This despite the fact that I had recently visited that library where they had on display a favored author’s typewriter, pipe, eyeglasses, and everything else they could find short of the contents of his underwear drawer.

Eventually after an unseasonably long custodianship, and a modest discount that rendered the item uncomfortably close to my total cost, the “box” finally found a home with a collector in Texas.

Maybe it wasn’t worth preserving after all.

This cardboard box has joined a long line of non-book association items that I have handled: A portable ship’s desk owned by the Civil and Spanish American War Admiral Winfield Scott Schley; Ernest Hemingway’s checkbook; Catherine Drinker Bowen’s National Book Award; a bronze bust of Dante given by American author F. Marion Crawford to Sarah Bernhardt after she assayed the role of Francesca da Rimini in his 1902 play based on the Dante character; Katherine Anne Porter’s briefcase and silver dishes, and an ancient bronze dagger salvaged by author James Jones from the Adriatic Sea.

Recently I took possession of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' lovely and ornately engraved shotgun, given to her by her editor, and later given to the author Pat Conroy, and about which he wrote in his most recent bookMy Writing Life.

Although I have no interest in guns, this is a curious and alluring object, and one that, when sold, will no doubt challenge my knowledge of the regulations governing the shipping of collectible but lethal objects.

Once one follows this route the possibilities are endless. A friend of mine owns Arthur Conan Doyle’s revolver. I just saw the other day that Upton Sinclair’s house was for sale.

Perhaps I really AM in the rag-and-bone trade.

But I prefer to think of it as recycling.

Recently, in partnership with the Winchester, Virginia bookseller Lorne Bair, I purchased the approximately 3000 volume library that had belonged to the social realist artist Ben Shahn and his wife, artist and Newbery Award-nominated children’s book illustrator, Bernarda Bryson Shahn.

In his time, Shahn was widely known, indeed nearly a household name, and his activities encompassed many disciplines. He was a fine artist, spent time as Diego Rivera’s assistant on the controversial Rockefeller Center murals, served a stint as an FSA photographer, illustrated many books, and engaged in varied and far ranging social activism.

Needless to say, he had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Ben Shahn died in 1969, while I was still in high school. However, his wife Bernarda lived to be 101, and consequently the library was still essentially intact, and shelved in its original setting. 

After negotiating the purchase of the library, we removed books from the Shahn’s house and art studio. The Shahn’s were first of all working artists and readers, with little regard for the curatorial preservation of their books. And while they were both involved in the production of books, and were thus not unmindful of their well-being, neither were they consciously concerned about the collectible condition of their books.

Being able to graze amongst these books was an interesting exercise in how people become associated with their books, and how books become associated with their people. 

Many of the books contained one or another of their ownership signatures or other markings, or were inscribed to them by close friends Walker EvansCharles OlsonS.J. PerelmanEdward Dahlberg, Robert Indiana, and many other international artists and authors.

But there were also many other types of books that proved unique because of there use: books with copious notes that they had each used in researching their own books or works of art, books whose preliminary and terminal blank pages had been used for sketching, books that had become virtual artist’s books by having many things pasted into them and annotated, travel books that had been supplied with hand-drawn maps, books which bore inter-family inscriptions, such as books inscribed from their son-in-law, the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award–winning poet Alan Dugan, or books inscribed from Ben to Bernarda or the reverse.

Further, the Shahn’s, and particularly Bernarda, used an almost infinite variety of items as book marks: passport photographs, snapshots of family members, and in larger books more fully realized vintage “art” photographs from the 1930s. She also used notes and letters from friends, artists, and authors; sketches; invitations to state dinners in many countries; tax bills; credit card slips; and more.

However, even in a library as fascinating as I found this one to be, one occasionally had to step back and assess really just how important each permutation that presented itself really was.

Even someone with so perfervid an imagination as my own might struggle to wrap one’s mind around the earth shattering implications of a nondescript, reprinted paperback novel complete with the inclusion of a bookmark which had previously known service as a highly important sewer bill.

Not that I didn’t try.

Another dilemma we were confronted with was that a substantial number of the books in the Shahn’s libraries did NOT bear marks or proof of ownership. What is an enterprising bookseller to do? In this case, with the greatest trepidation, and for the first and only time in my bookselling career, we commissioned, with the permission of Shahn’s family, a small estate label for the books.

The Shahn’s son, Jonathan, himself an artist, created a label for this use. This was a step not lightly taken. In general I am inclined to view such posthumous labels with some healthy skepticism, no matter how carefully they are guarded and how scrupulously they are applied. 

Happily, my past experience of these sorts of posthumously created labels has generally been that the members of the trade who have commissioned them have jealously guarded them, and have rigorously confined their use to the books for which they were rightly intended to adorn. However, one always has the sneaking suspicion that some labels might, if in the hands of an unscrupulous bookseller or collector, have strayed to books for which they weren’t originally intended. In a very few cases, I’ve had my suspicions about a few of these, but the specter of potential legal implications leads me to say no more.

That these sorts of labels deserve a place in a library of books is certainly a part of what would be a valid argument. In this case, we felt that the books constituted the Shahn’s Library and deserved to be marked as such.

But what value do such posthumously created labels add, when considered by the bookseller when pricing the books, or by the collector when buying them?

In the case of the Shahn Library we felt the need to indicate the source of the books, but did not feel the need to add very much, or in most cases, any premium to the price of what would be an equivalent copy of any particular book.

What the monetary implications of that label might mean to future generations is not for me to profitably speculate upon. Certainly the posthumous labels created by auction houses to be placed in books from the libraries of Jacqueline Kennedy and other luminaries have had a profound effect on the prices asked for those books. Where the boundaries lie between celebrity souvenir hunting and bibliophilic collecting that might have implications on future scholarly research is yet another intangible that dealers and collectors have occasionally to ponder.

Probably a more serious problem is the question of stray bookplates – that is, the bookplates created for living authors, collectors, or others that went unused during their lifetimes, some of which have subsequently made their way to collectors or to practitioners of the trade who might be less than scrupulous in their use. One example was that of the bookseller Samuel Loveman, a close friend and patron of Hart Crane who procured some of Crane’s bookplates from his mother after Crane’s early death, and was not above pasting them in the appropriate, or sometimes, inappropriate volumes when it suited his purposes, thus creating what could only be considered false association copies.

For my part, I start from a foundation of skepticism whenever I see a book that bears the bookplate of Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent Starrett, or John Galsworthy, unless that volume seems also to bear some additional corroborating evidence. Most often they do not, or else the corroborating evidence is equally unconvincing.

Even now, I have a stack of unused Vincent Starrett bookplates, purchased in a large lot of Starrett material, sitting on my shelf. I rather suspect that they are staring at me in a most accusatory manner, lest I succumb to the compulsion to use them in an untoward fashion, and from which scrutiny I feel duly chastened.

So far.

All of this leads circuitously to the question of secondary associations. When does a book become an association copy just because it has collected previously by another important collector?

Obviously most of the books that one might encounter that bear the ownership markings of Robert Hoe, Estelle Doheny, H. Bradley Martin, Mortimer C. Schiff, Beverly Chew, and others of their ilk can usually be assumed to have qualities that transcend their mere association with their owners.

However, it is not always so. Robert Hoe’s copy of the phonebook would be of little interest to most collectors, but if you have a copy, let me know, as I happen to know someone who would be eager to purchase it.

I recently handled a number of books with the bookplate of Fannie Browning, wife of the only son of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, some of which could be assumed to have been in her in-laws library. I am told that in the past these books mostly elicited only yawns and disinterested stares from Browning collectors. In this case they were barely in stock for a day. Associations in books are constantly being reassessed, and what may have bored a previous generation of collectors might inspire a future generation, and the reverse might also be true.

One of the beauties of association copies is that once one is aware of them and is set upon their path, they are, to some degree, everywhere.

And therein is the crux of the problem. Just where does the cut-off lie? With the advent of increasingly comprehensive Internet searches, it occasionally becomes rather easy to overstate the case for a particular volume.
We are probably all too familiar with dealers who rely too greatly on Google or Wikipedia searches to justify an incremental increase in the price of a book or try to enhance its salability by making barely substantiated or just plain silly claims about the associations that he or she might find in books.

I fear occasionally that I might be one of them.

The discovery of a fragmentary Internet mention of a volume’s owner almost always results in the temptation to over-egg the associational pudding. Those dealers that succumb to this urge too often should have their laptops confiscated.

One dealer of my experience, whose identity, because of my strong collegial manners and highly refined and delicate sensibilities, I will NEVER reveal, until you buy me at least one cocktail, was particularly prone to this sort of overreaching even before the Internet era sprang upon us. 

This colleague issued a string of catalogs that seemed to stress associations, but whose interpretation of just what an association was conspired as well to stretch credulity.

The catalogs were filled chock-a-block with books bearing the ownership signature of Robert Frost’s third cousin, whom Frost had once met at a family picnic, with the consequent carefully considered increase in the price of the offending volume.

One would like to think that there was at least an element of the burlesque to this, but sadly I fear that one would probably have been mistaken. I do not know if this colleague has continued to strive, but one can only imagine what strides he has made since he discovered Google.

It seems to me that the RBMS section of the American Library Association has created a near faultless system of classifying and quantifying association copies, but one that rightly makes no attempt to qualify them by value or importance. That is our job, and by our job, I mean all of us here.

An equation that booksellers and scholars must always try to balance is the quality of the association with the use to which it is put. It’s arguable that a copy of Lolita inscribed to Edmund Wilson might be of the greatest literary and scholarly interest. It’s also arguable that a copy of Lolita inscribed to Marilyn Monroe would be a lot easier to sell. 

So I guess what this really points out is that associative value, much like beauty, can be undeniable. Or conversely, it can be, also much like beauty, entirely in the eye of the beholder. I generally try to choose both, and while it might be entirely self-serving for me to say so, I think you should too.

Thank you