Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
# 10 – The Digit Junkie (1957). An Installment in Jed Birmingham’s series of the The Top 23 Most Interesting Burroughs Collectibles.
It was the spring of 2003. My first marriage had just fallen apart. I was living in a one bedroom apartment on the first floor with a large wall of windows facing the public library. Almost daily I would stop over at the library on my way home from work and browse through their selection of discards and donations that they put on sale to raise a few bucks. Paperbacks were a quarter and hardcovers were a buck. Being alone I did not have much to do, so I spent a lot of time at the library, and I bought promiscuously. Anything could catch my fancy; anything I might ever want to read in the future was fair game. Never before nor since did I own so much Tom Robbins and Philip Roth. Updike, Malamud, Bellow. Barth, Barthelme (Donald not Frederick, who also turned up from time to time), Coover. Joyce Carol Oates, Grace Paley, Tillie Olson. Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor. For whatever reason, I gathered together a large collection of Doris Lessing paperbacks. Who knows I might want to read The Golden Notebook someday, right? I was building a reading library of post-WWII fiction, largely American. Recovering from a near disastrous financial situation, my hardcore Burroughs collecting was also slowly coming out of hibernation. I was just chipping and biding my time. Waiting for the big score.
When you have been a book collector for a long time and with a consistency of purpose and focus, there comes a time when you realize that the books you really need to fill out your shelves are not worth physically searching for. Of course, you send out your wish lists and generally make known that you are in the market for certain items, but after that you can only wait for the Man to call. These books do not show up on the carousels at the local library. Or in church or yard sales. These books are not in your average used bookstore. In addition, such books are so rare and so desirable that there is no shortage of buyers for the product. And here we come to Burroughsian economics of supply and demand. Such books are the true junk of the rare book market. The ideal product. Sitting in my apartment waiting, waiting, waiting, I came in direct contact with the Algebra of Need.
The Digit Junkie is just such a book. Having the Olympia Press Naked Lunch on your bookshelf demonstrates that you are serious about collecting Burroughs. Owning the Digit Junkie announces that you have a serious problem. It is where the connoisseur shades into the addict. Which is appropriate since the Digit Junkie is one of the most sought-after drug books of all-time. For collectors of drug literature, pulp fiction and Burroughs, it is the ultimate stopper. Both in terms of price and rarity. The story surrounding the Digit Junkie has become legend. Printed in 1957, under Burroughs’ pseudonym and severed from The Narcotic Agent, the book’s lurid cover art, which on the back cover depicted a woman of ill repute injecting into her thigh, was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Comic books and pulp fiction were under government investigation for being unfit for the growing youth culture that was for the first time in history flush with cash and leisure time. This generation of potential JDs was ready and willing to make bad decisions.
The Digit Junkie‘s cover art is now regarded as a highpoint of pulp fiction, but at the time it was considered low-end pornography. In this moral climate overheated with outrage over the fate of our beloved children, this pulp classic was itself pulped, with an estimated 120 copies spared from destruction. These copies had been mailed out before the death warrant was signed. The fate of the Digit Junkie is one reason I do not like kids. Their supposed well-being rules and restricts my life even though I chose not to have kids of my own. Burroughs never spoke truer than when he demanded people mind their own business and when he lambasted the never-wrong nature of the do-rights. Thankfully, in recent years, more copies of the Digit have turned up than ever before, but even so the book is recognized to be as special as the blue cocaine from Thailand that Keith Richards ordered at Nellcôte in the South of France while recording Exile on Main Street.
Sitting in my apartment reading my pickings from the library, I received an email from my Man in London. “I scored a Digit Junkie and a British Journal of Addiction offprint? You want a taste?” A couple of words about stoppers. Most people focus on their halting, prohibitive nature; that is the fact that a stopper due to its rarity ends a collector’s dream of completion. Yet collectors are never really deterred. They merely move on to something else or find that their seemingly narrow collection can actually accommodate more than they initially thought.
No, stoppers are about holes. They stop gaps in your collection, holes that threaten to sink efforts at wholeness. Ideally stoppers are showstoppers. In such cases, the stopper is not just the hardest item to acquire in a collection; it encapsulates the essence or perfection of that collection. One thing the stopper is not about is price. If you cannot afford a book, that is a “you” problem. You are the stopper not the book. No, the true stopper is the book you cannot buy even if you had the money. Stoppers do not discriminate. They are beyond the reach of billionaires and coupon clippers both.
There is a difference between the Olympia Naked Lunch and the Digit Junkie. The Olympia is merely expensive; the Digit is truly elusive. You can sometimes forget that rarity is only about availability, not affordability. One of the great moments in my collecting career was that I did not hesitate to pull the trigger on purchasing both the Digit and the Offprint. True stoppers both. In similar situations, such as with Semina, I backed down when faced with the opportunity to step up.
The Digit Junkie is one of the few books on this list where I follow the established guidelines of what would make a typical collecting top ten. In some respects, the Digit is downright boring. It is a textbook collectible. It is what all the collecting dudes — and let’s face it collecting is a sausage fest — want. In collecting, rarity is like a smoking hot body. It is the lowest common denominator. The Digit Junkie is the Bo Derek of the Burroughs bibliography. It is a perfect ten and out of respect for a stone cold fox, it makes number ten on my list. Sure, it looks fantastic on your bookshelf and running down the beach, and it makes a loser like me look a little better by association, but it cannot carry a conversation, and by that I mean it does not speak to what is really radical and interesting about Burroughs. The Digit is a footnote, a rare footnote to be sure, but a footnote in Burroughs’ bibliography.
The second lowest denominator is cover art. Of course, the Digit gives good face. It looks spectacular even if it is a bit heavily made up. Modern firsts are primarily valuable for their dust jackets, their cover design. Ninety percent of The Great Gatsby‘s value lies in the jacket; as an object can this book really be considered really great? How does Daisy Buchanan look under her summer dress? Most modern first collectors only care about surfaces. On the surface, that is in terms of rarity and cover art, The Digit Junkie is a stunner. It is the ultimate trophy wife for a Burroughs collector. Eye candy to be sure, but not your first love, nor the love of your life.