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Book Bling for Sale

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All the Hemingways I saw were going for stratospheric prices. Well, not exactly going. More like asking. If I remember correctly, a signed presentation copy of the rare Paris edition of in our time had a price tag of $465,000. Signed firsts of Ulysses by James Joyce and Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot didn't come cheap either. We're talking six figures of course. But I wasn't in the market to buy.

I had dropped into the New York Antiquarian Book Fair at the Park Avenue Armory to speak with Ken Lopez about my signed books. He concentrates on "modern firsts" of mid-20th-century authors, and especially the Beats. Over the years I've acquired a few shelves of signed books by authors I met as a journalist or knew as a friend: Nelson Algren, Norman Mailer, Studs Terkel, John Cheever, James Michener, Mary Hemingway, Gay Talese, Paul Theroux, Jules Feiffer, Emmett Williams, et al.

It was my association copies of William Burroughs firsts that I most wanted to ask him about. Lopez is noted among book collectors for championing association copies and the stories that go with them. He made a splash in the wider world three years ago when he brokered the sale of a private archive of Burroughs papers to the New York Public Library, reportedly for $1 million. The good news is he liked what I showed him, and he let me video some of the books he had on display.

(Click the photo for the video, or watch below.)

The soundtrack is by Eric Person(on sax) and his bandmates Peter O'Brien (on drums) and Jerod Kashkin (on piano).

Postscript: Several inquiries have arrived asking me to identify the particulars of some of the books seen in the video. So here they are -- although not all of them -- listed in sequence. The first book you see is: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey. If you click the title, it will bring you to this description and price, with a photo, in the Ken Lopez catalogue:

KESEY, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
NY: Viking, (1962). A review copy of Kesey's landmark first book, a pivotal novel of the Sixties, which helped to shape a generation's attitudes on issues of authority, power, madness and, finally, individuality. The early printings of the U.S. edition contain text that was later excised and changed after a lawsuit was brought against Kesey and his publisher by a woman who was a nurse at the institution which Kesey used as a model for the novel; she charged him with portraying a character that was based on her (and had the same first name) in a disparaging manner. The character was rewritten after the third hardcover printing, and later editions, including the mass market paperback and the "definitive" text in the Viking Critical Library Series, have an alternate character in her place. A fine copy, with topstain uncharacteristically rich, in an unfaded, nearly perfect dust jacket with just a couple of tiny spots of rubbing. Inscribed by the author in 1992. With publisher's review slip laid in. By a significant measure, the nicest copy of this book we've ever seen, probably as nice a copy as exists. In a custom quarter leather clamshell box. From the collection of Bruce Kahn. $25,000

Next come the following books. They're priced according to many factors -- importance in the literary canon, rarity of the particular copy, condition, whether it's signed (by whom and to whom) or unsigned, and so on:

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs ($1,200);
On the Road by Jack Kerouac ($3,500);
The Joke's Over. Memories of Hunter S. Thompson by Ralph Steaman and Kurt Vonnegut ($1,500);
Histoire du Soldat by Vonnegut ($1,000);
Slaughterhouse-Five by Vonnegut ($4,500);
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Vonnegut ($3,250);
Salem's Lot by Stephen King ($5,000);
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson ($2,750);
V. by Thomas Pynchon ($2,500);
V. by Pynchon ($2,000);
Gravity's Rainbow by Pynchon ($2,500);
Gravity's Rainbow by Pynchon ($7,500);
Gravity's Rainbow by Pynchon ($2,500);
The Water-Method Man by John Irving ($2,000);
A Prayer for Owen Meany by Irving ($1,250);
If Morning Ever Comes by Anne Tyler ($2,500);
The Clock Winder by Tyler ($3,000);
The Tin Can Tree by Tyler ($3,000);
The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Cary ($4,500);
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie ($2,500);
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver ($5,000).

Some of the items in the video are not listed in the current catalogue. They'll be in the upcoming catalogue, which Lopez tells me has just gone to press. The last two items in the video -- a manuscript by Allen Ginsberg and a German photo-biography of Burroughs, also not in the current catalogue -- drew particular attention. Lopez was kind enough to provide advance descriptions and prices of those two:

GINSBERG, Allen. Manuscript Pages. 1972. A diatribe by Ginsberg against the war in Vietnam and against the re-election of Richard Nixon. Four pages (plus several words on the back of one page), approximately 250 words total plus several lists of numbers (of wounded, dead, refugees, etc.). Typed on the first page: "Horrible War In Indochina Bombtonnage Billions Spent Deaths Wounds Refugees Ecologic Damage." The rest is handwritten by Ginsberg. In part: "Pin this on your wall. [Wake up! Wake up! (crossed out).] Vote for Mass Murder? Electronic Automated Battlefield against Oriental Human Beings? This is Nixon's War: $60 Billion Bombs. Your call??? Is This Our Prosperity??? ... Everybody's sleepwalking into Nixon's Hypnosis Victory ... A dope dealing, murdering, robotized military bureaucracy out of control dominating America sucking it dry & wrecking the last hopes of the civilized world. Don't be crazy! Don't let Nixon get back in the White House and assassinate Indochina another half decade. Get out there and vote! Get your ass boogying to the rescue of your Indochine Brothers in the Polling Booth. Wake Up! Wake Up! A Ah Sha Sa Ma Ha." Ginsberg continues with notes on reading a September 25th New York Times article about the increasingly tight rule of South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, and a full page of tabulations of the dead, the wounded and the refugees, by nationality, and he ends with a calculation of tons of bombs per minute (after a bit of math in which he incorrectly calculates the number of minutes in a day). The pages are unsigned; a similar (but much shorter) "Open Letter" by Ginsberg from the same time period was provided to logosjournal.com by Bill Morgan, Ginsberg's archivist. Very slight wear to the top edges; else fine. Unique. $3500

Lopez writes in an email: "I believe the Ginsberg manuscript came from Leary's papers: I bought it from the person who was Leary's executor after he died, and he previously sold me an unknown printing of Ginsberg's poem 'Lysergic Acid'; one copy of it went into the Leary archives with Leary's papers, but there was a duplicate which he sold to me, and which Bill Morgan, Ginsberg's bibliographer, had never seen. I believe he said this came from the same source."

That ought to give an indication of the scholarship and lovingly detailed stories typical of many of Lopez's offerings. So ... moving right along:

BURROUGHS, William S. Burroughs Eine Bild-Biographie. (Berlin): Nishen (1994). The hardcover issue of this photo-biography of Burroughs. This is a contributor's copy belonging to Nelson Lyon, who contributed three of the photographs. With the publisher's prospectus laid in, as well as a letter to Lyon identifying this as a sample copy and including a statement of Lyon's royalties. Signed by Lyon, and also signed in the year of publication by Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Timothy Leary. Signed three times (on the title page and on two of the photos in which he appears) by Gregory Corso. Ginsberg appears in several photos, as does Leary who also contributes a piece of writing. Never published in the U.S. and including a large number of photos of Burroughs that do not appear elsewhere. Near fine in mildly splayed boards, with rubbing to the joints, and a small bit of smoke damage to the front endpapers and title page. Text in German; the photographs need no translation. Scarce in the hardcover issue; probably unique with the signatures. $2500

Lopez adds in his email: "Nelson Lyon, whose copy of the Burroughs photo-biography it is, was the co-producer of Burroughs' Dead City Radio. He was also a friend of Timothy Leary and, I don't know if you saw it there or not but I had a photograph he took of Leary and Burroughs in 1987, inscribed by both of them to him. That's also in the upcoming catalog."

In the meantime Jed Birmingham, who writes an online column called the Bibliographic Bunker, offers his take on the NY book fair and wonders whether "book collectors are threatened with extinction."