Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Doctor Benway: A Variant Passage from The Naked Lunch, published by Bradford Morrow Bookseller, is just about everything I hate.
Fine press – Check
Manufactured to be collectible – Check
Various levels of limited editions – Check
Underwhelming paratext – Check
Commemorative edition – Check
As I always say, hors commerce is for Burroughs whores. Stuff like this is a tax on Burroughs collectors designed to prey on completists and others unfortunately addicted. Bradford Morrow — a great bookseller who also issued some book catalogues that have become collector’s items in themselves like his Catalogue No. 5 on Jack Kerouac — knows his marks. Looking over the copies available for sale on Abebooks right now makes this clear: two copies inscribed to book dealer and collector Robert A. Wilson of The Phoenix Bookshop and copy J inscribed to uber-collector Robert Jackson. Yes, Bradford knew his market. To add insult to injury, there were some advanced review copies issued, as if a trade edition of 324 in wrappers, a signed, number edition of 150 in cloth and boards, and a lettered edition signed by Burroughs, the publisher and the designer of the frontispiece was not enough bullshit for collectors to deal with. Why not suck out every last drop of collectability for those poor saps who value review copies as somehow “closer to the author’s hand.”
As for the text itself, sure it is a variant and there are some major and minor textual differences but is this even the best Benway appearance in Naked Lunch? The operation scene from “Hospital” is more famous and, to my mind, “The Examination” is a more interesting use of Benway and more sinister, primarily due to the fact that as Michael Stevens notes in The Road to Interzone, that scene parallels the scene between Mikulin and Razumov in Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, which appeals to the English major in me. Is Benway even the best doctor in Naked Lunch? I absolutely love Doctor “Fingers” Schafer, the Lobotomy Kid. That is some funny shit.
No, when I see a copy of Doctor Benway, I’m getting out of here, me. Man, that motherfucker Morrow’s hungry!! That said, I have a soft spot for the prospectus for Doctor Benway. A single sheet, 5″ X 8″ with one deckle edge. Now, I should hate this too. I hate broadsides with a passion. Especially fine press broadsides that couple an artist and a poet. But, as Mick would say (Get well, Mick!!!), this is not one of those. This is advertising. This is the ephemera I love so much. It is also basically a glorified bookseller’s catalogue entry. If you haven’t noticed I happen to love anything bibliographic. Throw a deckle edge on it and some nice paper and you have a nice piece of book porn. That is what this prospectus is: bibliographic smut. I like to think the deckle edge is sleazy, a reference to the fact that Burroughs liked his vices uncut with the exception of writing of course. And for $15 (from Jeff Hirsch) this prospectus is cheap smut to boot. It is the type of thing you can throw in a cheap picture frame and put on your desk next to your Burroughs manual typewriter because I know if you are a Burroughs collector who has the hor commerce edition of Doctor Benway you have one of those as well. God help you. I will help myself to the prospectus and my vintage Burroughs adding machine.