Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Book collecting is in part about ritual, repetition, compulsion, and routine. It is about ordering a chaotic world. Take the 51st New York Antiquarian Book Fair. As always, I take the Regional Amtrak to Penn Station, head out onto Fashion Avenue, take a left turn up to 34th Street, and then right down to Third Avenue. Head left up to 56th Street and walk into P.J. Clarke’s, which has been in operation since 1884. It is about 11:30am; I sit at the corner of the bar and once again read the Utica Club beer ad, which promotes old-school stubbornness in a newfangled time. I take solace in the fact that the picture in the ad was taken decades ago right where I am sitting. I look before me and, yes, the cash register appears the same. The guy sitting next to me talks about drinking at P.J. Clarke’s in the early 1980s. He is hungover and comments that the hamburger grill has been replaced with an oyster bar. The unchanging oasis shimmers and threatens to dissipate right before my eyes. Then the ladies who lunch meander in for a burger and a glass of wine. Next the corporate crowd streams in. It is 12:30 and the bar is packed. No room for ghosts. Time to head up to the Park Avenue Armory.
I check my bag, show my ticket, and walk into the main hall. Looking around I realize I am still, after twenty years of attending this fair, one of the youngest guys in the room, but the crowd does seem to be getting younger. There are more and more collectors and dealers that are my age. This is not the early 1990s any longer when dealers asked me if I was attending with my parents. It is officially spring in New York City and I am ready to mingle. The books await with open pages.
And what do these books tell me this year? Well, in short, the Burroughs A titles, such as the Olympia Naked Lunch, the Groves, and the Ace Junkies are truly books of the past; the little magazines are the Now, and the library and the archive are the future.
Let’s start with the present. Clay and Philips’s Secret Location on the Lower East Side is no longer a secret and has not been for several years. Yet with the publication of In Numbers and the recently released Artists’ Magazines, the little magazine market is as hot as I have ever seen it. The critical mass has been developed (and by that I mean the scholarly support for the importance of the post-WWII little magazine as art object) and the market for littles is exploding. Dealers and collectors alike are talking about them and they are selling briskly — for incredible prices. A dealer from France, who specializes in print as art and design, had the typical photography books, the Japanese design books, the Ed Ruscha stuff, the Fluxus material, but he also had a complete run of Fuck You, A Magazine of the Arts. I am told that this was an especially nice set. The Warhol couch cover was attached and in beautiful condition. The rest of the set was tight and bright. By the time I arrived on the scene, the set had sold. The list price was $16,500. If you consider the Warhol issue to be worth $6000, which is a very healthy price, the rest of the set was selling for an astonishing $875 an issue. Remarkable but not unheard of. Last year, John Benjamins Antiquarian of the Netherlands, which specializes in periodicals, listed an incomplete set (the final issue was missing and in fact Benjamins questioned its existence; sadly for Benjamins and his set, Issue 5/9 does, indeed, exist) for around $15,000. It is official mimeos have become Art.
This same dealer had a near complete set of Floating Bear. You guessed it, missing the legendary issue 24. Even so, the list price was $8500. Are we beginning to see the effect of Between the Covers’ Great Mimeograph Revolution catalog? I think so. If you remember, Between the Covers made the play to put individual issues of Floating Bear in the upper tier of the mimeo market by pushing prices of certain issues over $500. I do not know if anybody is buying at these prices but many dealers are following Between the Covers’ lead. I have heard one instance where Floating Bears were listed at around $50 but upon calling the dealer to purchase them being informed that the price was now $150. The set at the New York Fair was being offer for around $225 an issue, which puts it in line with the newly set market. That said near complete runs of Floating Bear (i.e., those missing Issues 1, 2, and/or 24) have, to this point, not gone above $5000, this set in New York establishes a new horizon.
As Floating Bear #5 and #9 (the issues with a Burroughs appearance) approach around $300 and Fuck You 5/7 slips past $500, the key little magazines appearances are rapidly outpacing the Burroughs hardcovers from Grove, Calder, Viking, and Holt if not in price, then definitely in interest from collectors. Make no mistake, many dealers in modern firsts had the key Burroughs A titles, but I saw little action on them and I hear little discussion about them from collectors and booksellers. This might be the product of the digital revolution, the death of print, and the decline of corporate publishing. It seems to me that the marginalized aspects of print culture are being fetishized as the mainstream dies. The handmade, the crude, the obsolete are in demand, while books published by Grove, Holt or Viking — which demonstrate the most boring, non-innovative, and conservative aspects of large-scale offset printing — are not. As a general rule, these books did not challenge the codex as a form or expand offset as a technology. Books of a challenging, expansive, or retro nature are exactly what collectors are after in the post-print world. Coupled with the death of print is the long-announced death of the author. If books as object are gaining greater appreciation from collectors, the cult of the author could be in decline. Let’s face it: most of the blue-chip authors have the most boring and unappealing books, if you consider them as objects. Think J.D. Salinger, Ken Kesey or, even, to my taste, Jack Kerouac. The rising appreciation of the book form as object and the declining importance of the individual author would dovetail nicely with the rising interest in little magazines.
The repositioning of the novels in Burroughs’ canon is nowhere more clear than at the booth of Ken Lopez. It was déjà vu all over again. In 2005, Lopez had selections from the Robert Jackson / Vaduz Archive available for inspection just before this collection went into the bowels of the New York Public Library. This year, he had a box of material from the Word Horde 2.0. RealityStudio spent some time going through the material: correspondence, manuscripts, scrapbooks and ledgers, much of it from the 1950s and 1960s. It quickly became apparent to us that this was a major archive. Just as quickly you realize that this is the future in the Burroughsian universe. To paraphrase bookseller Brian Cassidy, it has become obvious, looking through this latest material at Lopez’s booth, that Burroughs remains a mystery to both general readers and hardcore scholars and that the most interesting aspects of Burroughs’ work were never published but remain in the archives. Just this one box at Lopez’s would provide RealityStudio with years of material for the website. For example, the letters from Burroughs to Gysin just for the years from 1977 to 1978, dealt with the publication of The Third Mind and planning for the Nova Convention. These were not postcards or quickly jotted notes, but substantial letters. Of similar importance was one redweld which had material pertaining to the publication of Doctor Benway. These manuscripts, notations, and letters demonstrated how Burroughs interacted with fine press publishers. There was a folder on material related to Audrey Carsons, which revealed how Burroughs gathered and utilized information from magazines and other sources for his writing. Another folder contained cut-ups presented as poetry, which could further the understanding and appreciation of Burroughs as a poet. There was a diary / daybook from 1968 written in an accounting ledger, which makes you realize that the key role of the ledger in Burroughs’ work could form the basis of a dissertation in itself. All of these materials cover unexplored aspects of Burroughs’ writing.
The New York Public Library, Ohio State, Columbia University. Supposedly in an age of digital culture, the Library is dying and becoming irrelevant, but for anybody interested in Burroughs the icon, the writer, or the artist, the library and the archive are the future for the Burroughsian. A quick look at Word Horde 2.0 made clear that these institutions are the Meccas to which those searching for a fuller understanding of Burroughs and his work will have to make pilgrimage. The future of Burroughs is in processing and publishing this material. Currently we are in the dark ages in that process. I have written repeatedly about the need for print and online journals dedicated to the Burroughs archives along the lines of those for Charles Olson published years ago. Looking though just one box of Burroughs material from what is supposedly a “minor” collection demonstrates that a new age in Burroughs scholarship and appreciation has yet to truly begin. All those interested in Burroughs have a long and exciting journey ahead. Opening the archive will be one giant step forward.