Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
An Installment in Jed Birmingham’s series on the The Greatest Burroughs Collectors. #5 is Michael Stevens.
Before the cats and the guns, before the novels, hell, before the drugs, Burroughs was known as a great reader. At least to Kerouac and Ginsberg he was. Burroughs’ wide-ranging knowledge of literature was what first drew Burroughs into the Beat circle. It was Burroughs’ quotation of Shakespeare in conversation that indicated to Ginsberg that he was somebody in the know and somebody to get to know better. You could learn something from this guy. Over the years this has been forgotten. As an outlaw and writer from the margins, he was viewed by many in the intellectual establishment of the 1950s as something of a rube, like the rest of the Beats. This carries over to some extent to the present day. When you think of Burroughs you think of many things but Burroughs the reader is far down on the list. That is a shame, and it is wrong.
Nobody has thought more about Burroughs the reader than Mike Stevens. Stevens has done something downright radical. When discussing and studying canonical writers, like Shakespeare and Joyce, it is not unusual to believe those writers have the Midas touch, that is, that anything they touched is intellectual gold. So, it is not unusual to compile lists and collections based on a great writer’s library and reading. I do not know that this approach has carried over into writers of the post-modern era. As I have written on RealityStudio before, Charles Olson was an exception. And the study of post-modern writers’ libraries seems to in a renaissance. Mary Catherine Kinniburgh, who now works with archives and rare books at Granary Books, wrote an award-winning dissertation on the libraries of Olson and Diane di Prima. For years Stevens has been collecting and recreating Burroughs’ library in relative obscurity. Maybe times they are a-changing. I hope so for Stevens’ sake; his collection deserves serious attention. It is one of the greatest book collections, Burroughs or otherwise, I have ever personally been in contact with.
In terms of his reading, it is thought that Burroughs was addicted to junk. And he was to a certain extent, but he turned that dross into gold in his writing. Scientology anyone? Yet as Stevens and Ginsberg will tell you, Burroughs knew his way around the classics too. Burroughs was a voracious reader, and it is Stevens’ goal to document and collect every single book Burroughs ever encountered. It is an impossible task, but Stevens is making a serious run at it. Stevens estimates he has tracked down 1,152 books connected to Burroughs’ reading. What makes Stevens’ collection remarkable is that it is not enough to get a copy of Yeats’ A Vision from the local bookstore. No, in an imperfect world Stevens wants the same edition that Burroughs read; in a perfect world Stevens would have Burroughs’ own copies. That said, Stevens tries to recreate Burroughs’ library as faithfully as he can. Stevens’ shelf mirrors Burroughs’ own shelves at various times in his life. If Stevens has seen a picture of Burroughs’ bookshelf (and he has in person), Stevens replicates the order of the books on his own shelves. It goes beyond books as Stevens has managed to adorn the shelves of his collection with a few of the same items Burroughs had on his shelves in Lawrence: an Audubon bird call, a Dr. Steele action figure from the Big Jim series of GI Joe knock-offs from the Seventies, Spiritual Sky incense (Nag Champa), a postcard with a photo of Samuel Beckett, an encased scorpion with the felt on the bottom, and, of course, a Kubotan keychain.
It is this level of obsession that sets Stevens apart and makes him special. He is a pioneer and an explorer. Like Barry Miles, Stevens had a career in books that dovetails with his collecting life. All booksellers are in essence book collectors. Booksellers are not a necessary evil, that is too harsh and unjust, but they are book collectors corrupted. Disciples selling the relics, or the aura as soul, for pieces of silver. Richard Aaron is a case in point. He amassed a considerable Burroughs collection before his finances collapsed and he was forced into the world of bookselling as a means to make a living. One wonders if the greatest Burroughs bookseller of all time would have gotten into the business if not for financial demands. If not for the money, would any bookseller rather remain a book collector? Does any book dealer really want to part with their books? Is not bookselling a curse, an exile from the Eden of collecting?
For years Stevens was a book scout. But that is being modest. He was the personal book scout for Larry McMurtry, one of the most famous and well-known bookmen of the 20th century. McMurtry was also not too shabby as an author. Stevens travelled every inch of Texas looking for books for McMurtry. Such adventures honed Stevens’ skills in finding books. Most book scouts have a list of the books they are looking for. It is not easy charting an unexplored territory. Most Burroughs collectors have a map, in the form of a bibliography, to work from. Stevens created his own map, his own world, which he called The Road to Interzone. The bulk of the entries in his bibliography of that title came from Burroughs’ own writing on his reading practices, but it is remarkable the lengths Stevens will go to track down a book that Burroughs has read. Stevens has listened to hours of Burroughs’ lectures (Burroughs’ lectures on Creative Reading alone led to at least 60 entries); he has looked at all the Burroughs photographs with a magnifying glass (there’s the classic picture of Burroughs with Kurt Cobain looking at books and magazines, Jon Blumb’s picture of Burroughs reading Triggernometry, and the picture of Burroughs reading Rigor Mortis). Stevens sees cliched photographs with fresh eyes. How many times have we seen the photograph of Burroughs and Patti Smith? But have you ever really studied that photograph? Stevens on what he sees:
There are a couple of pictures of Burroughs with Patti Smith that float around all the time. One shows her sitting next to him on the floor. The picture was taken at the Bunker. I’m not sure about the photographer, but there’s one book that caught my eye on the shelf in the background. I recognized it as one of those Crime and Punishment books from that series that came out back in the 70s. Colin Wilson was on the editorial advisory board. You used to see them all the time. I had to do some searching, but I found out that it was Vol. 6 in the series. That tells me he might have had them all, but I can’t confirm it. So, in a situation like this I’ll mention it in the addendum, but only list the one volume, because it’s the only one I know he had.
Stevens goes over every video of Burroughs like a conspiracy theorist watching the Zapruder film. For example, in the deleted scenes from Burroughs: A Movie, made available through Criterion, Burroughs paces around the Bunker showing off a sword. Most people would be transfixed by this act of showmanship, but Stevens noticed a table with magazines and a book. He paused the movie and took a picture of the TV, then looked up close at the picture and was able to make out a copy of Living at the Movies by Jim Carroll. The book was already in Stevens’ library and his bibliography, but the detail that it was in the Brookner film is now duly noted in his addendum. In short Stevens looks at the world through the lens of Burroughs’ library in the process of reconstructing Burroughs’ worldview.
Like many pioneers, Stevens’ strength is in exploration not explication. The Road to Intezone is like an explorer’s journal, but the history, the full implications of what Stevens’ has found remains to be fully processed and explicated. On Instagram, Stevens posts pictures of his adventures in Burroughs collecting, but this isn’t mere book porn. These images are in the interests of science. Stevens on Instagram:
I started thinking it might be interesting to show Burroughs’ library in a way that would illustrate his use of the books if that was possible, or at least present my collection of his reading in such a way that it would be interesting and possibly even informative. I’ve tried to group books on shelves, in stacks, or arranged to show a connection. For example, I’ve put all of the books he mentions, quotes, or has stated as an influence on a particular work along with the other books that influenced that work, or for the non-fiction, all books cited in that book shelved together or stacked together. I’ve recreated some of the shelves from his Lawrence, KS library from pictures by Patricia Elliot. I thought that would be a more interesting way for people to look at it than just a picture of the cover of every book. That way you are seeing his collection as he shelved it.
Other ways I’ve photographed the collection for social media, include a picture of the books I remember seeing on his shelves when I met him as well as the books we discussed. The books he names in the Naropa lectures, and the Neglected Works lists he made at the time make up three shelves! The medical thrillers, the cat books, UFO books, books about weapons, obvious sections of books I put up there in stacks or shelves. I’m proud to have recreated a photo of three books by John Bennett at the Ohio State University included in the American Avant-Garde catalogue of the OSU WSB holdings. All the same editions. It looks great too. I took a picture for Instagram of the books Burroughs reviewed in Mayfair (The Farm by Clarence Cooper, Bloodworld by Lawrence Janifer, and The Mind Parasites by Colin Wilson).
In essence on Instagram Stevens has laid out an outline for a book along the lines of Ralph Maud’s book on Olson’s reading. Somebody should take him up on it; oh, the places you will go!
Stevens’ Road to Interzone began with a single step:
I began collecting Burroughs’ reading in 1991, though I didn’t know it. I was at one of those bookstores in a residential neighborhood that’s a bookstore during the day and someone’s house at night. There were stacks of science fiction on the floor, which of course had shaggy carpet. I spotted a book that rang a bell, but I didn’t know why. I remember I didn’t read much science fiction at the time, so I was probably looking for Philip K. Dick. The book I picked up was The High Destiny by Dan Morgan. I was reading The Adding Machine and Burroughs had mentioned it. I remembered what it was as soon as I started reading again. So, the next thing I did was to seek out the rest of the books he talked about in that essay. I didn’t intend on starting a collection, I was just looking for something to read.
Collecting Burroughs’ reading has become Stevens’ life’s work and as such it is a work in progress. For the last decade Stevens has been working on an addendum that attempts to lay out the entire universe of Burroughs reading. This will be a life-long task: “There hasn’t been a time in the last thirty years, and I can’t imagine a time in the next thirty years, that I won’t be actively searching for new additions to The Road to Interzone and my own collection of Burroughs’ reading.” Again, as with My Eric Shoaf, Stevens proves that Burroughs collecting is not a kick, but a way of life. My Eric Shoaf may or may not be fiction; Mike Stevens is most definitely real and he is spectacular. Quite simply, Mike Stevens is the greatest living Burroughs collector I know. In fact, I think he is the greatest book collector period. I wish more people knew, appreciated, and, most importantly, utilized his Burroughs collection. But like all true pioneers, Stevens is ahead of his time and sometimes you must blaze a path in this world alone.