Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
There are six surviving signatures of William Shakespeare. All on court documents. None in private hands. If one happened to turn up today in a storage locker in Encino, California, it would fetch millions of dollars on Pawn Stars or Storage Wars. But if the Bard were alive today, I suspect his signature would not be worth much. He would be a celebrity. Signing books at Barnes & Noble. Writing shows for Netflix and HBO. Acting in movies. He was an actor, after all. He was in the public eye, an Elizabethan celebrity. Think Ethan Hawke. The Hottest State forever. Today’s Shakespeare might have written and starred in a meta-movie about an elite prep school in the late 1950s which centered around his own plays and poems. Climatic scenes involving A Midsummmer’s Night Dream perhaps. What a ham that Shake. Or maybe I am completely off-base. J.K. Rowling’s signature is one of the most sought after and expensive of any writer living or dead.
So maybe I am a romantic (is that the right word? maybe a party-pooper) but I feel that in the Age of Celebatards you have to be a recluse in order for your signature to be something special. Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger come to mind but the real deal is Thomas Pynchon. There was a time in my younger days when it seemed possible that I might score Pynchon’s signature. I had a girlfriend who worked at Henry Holt when Mason & Dixon was in the works. Things were on beyond lockdown. Everything was secret squirrel to the extreme. I may or may not have been given Pynchon’s address. I will never tell. Maybe he lived somewhere in the Continental United States. I would never have written him anyway if I did happen to have his address. Is that respect for Pynchon’s privacy or is it the fact that I am chickenshit? Pynchon signatures are reserved for his friends, his publishers or the daring. I am none of those.
Or maybe I am a pessimist when it comes to value and signatures. The other route to having a signature worth more than the paper it is printed on is an early demise. Think James Dean. Think Richard Farina, who was a classmate of Pynchon’s at Cornell in the late 1950s. Vladimir Nabokov was there too. Lolita was in the news and the bookstores and Nabokov was giving his rightfully famous lectures to sleepy 1950s teenyboppers more interested in Elvis than Flaubert. Nabokov’s lectures have been published. They are fascinating reading but I would love to read Pynchon’s papers written for Nabokov. Think of it. Pynchon and Nabokov in the same classroom. According to a post on OpenCulture, Professor Nabokov remembered nothing of Pynchon but Vera, Nabokov’s wife and teaching assistant, was struck by the strangeness of Pynchon’s handwriting. How strange were those term papers?
Pynchon wrote an introduction to Farina’s 1960s novel supreme Been Down So Long, It Looks Like Up To Me. On April 30, 1966, Farina, folksinger and writer, a Shakespeare for the 1960s perhaps (would Shakespeare have been another Dylan?), attended a book signing for his novel at The Thunderbird bookshop in Carmel. His book had been published two days before. At an afterparty, Farina hopped on the back of a motorcycle and never returned. “You were too fast to live, too young to die, bye-bye.” I remember distinctly seeing a copy of Been Down So Long signed on that fateful day in April in a rare book catalog years ago and being blown away. It was morbid. And it was fantastic.
Burroughs was not a recluse, nor did he die young. If you soaked a sheet of paper in heroin Burroughs would sign it. Burroughs did readings consistently for decades. He received visitors for decades as well, all the way back to the Beat Hotel. Burroughs was a true gentleman. He graciously signed books and magazines if they were presented to him. His signature is anything but rare or unusual. If I had to put a price on it, his signature on a simple piece of paper or a reprint edition of Naked Lunch would be worth about a hundo, which brings us finally to the Pick of the Week. A signed bookplate featuring Burroughs signature that is making the rounds on eBay and Abebooks for $50-$65. The signature comes from a collection of books that was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. I do not mean to downplay the tragedy that was Katrina but why attempt to profit off of that which is better left lost and mourned? Fifty bucks seems like a small price to pay for a Burroughs signature until you realize that this signature appears to be a copy or scan that has been superimposed upon a non-descript bookplate. I do not see that the signature has been cut out and pasted on the plate, which would be sad enough. No, this appears to be a reproduction. So what is this worth? Maybe a ten spot as a curiosity. It is also, sorry to say it (hey, I am a bibliographic asshole), bullshit.