Collecting Modernism: Reconsidering
INK is indelible; once printed, books cannot be rewritten. Or can they? Eighteen months ago Rick Gekoski, a London-based antiquarian bookdealer, persuaded 50 authors to scribble second thoughts in first editions of their most famous works. J.K. Rowling wrote in “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” Kazuo Ishiguro in “The Remains of the Day,” his obsessive tale of an English butler in thrall to duty. Lionel Shriver annotated a copy of her 2003 bestseller, “We Need to Talk about Kevin,” and the book was snapped up by the Dobkin Family Collection of Feminism as a totem of its kind. The average price at the auction was $10,000, though for the “Harry Potter” the hammer went down at $235,000. The sale raised $690,000 for PEN, an association that promotes freedom of expression around the world.
Now Mr Gekoski’s wife, Belinda Kitchin, has revisited the idea in aid of PEN America. Seventy-five artists and authors have offered additions to their books, which will be auctioned at Christie’s in New York on December 2nd.
For artists such as Kiki Smith, Richard Serra and Ed Ruscha, who have long been influenced by books and paper, the auction has been an opportunity to roll up their creative sleeves. Ink, charcoal, graphite, glitter, red paint—nothing is out of bounds. Every page carries signs of their physical efforts.
Marina Abramovic, a performance artist, has done something rather different. “Dream House” was a farmhouse in Japan that she converted into a retreat for people to sleep in and record dreams. The “Dream Book”, which came out in 2012, gathers together 100 of these dreams. For the PEN auction Ms Abramovic has annotated a copy of the book (pictured), then tied it up with hair-like black thread, to which a broken brass key is attached. Like so many dreams, the book is unopenable, destined for ever to be a mystery.
If the artists have looked forward, the writers, for the most part, have used the auction to look back at their younger selves, not knowing how like themselves they had already become. Malcolm Gladwell is the Imelda Marcos of trainers; he buys two dozen pairs a year. Lydia Davis, a writer of sly short stories, is herself sly: “I never realised until the latest collection how often fish reappeared in my stories.” Garrison Keilor is the stolid Midwesterner he always was: “I had stopped smoking 2/14/1982 which briefly made me feel my writing was kaput. ‘Lake Wobegon Days’ kept me going.” Gillian Flynn seems more than a little crazy: “Thanks for reading this! Sorry that I have the crabbed handwriting of a serial killer!”
Mid-career, Michael Chabon looks back “in acute embarrassment and mortification”. Much older and retired from writing, Philip Roth is mightily pleased with what he has achieved. “Portnoy’s Complaint” was described to Richard Nixon by an aide as “the most obscene, pornographic book of all time”. When Mr Roth was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom 40 years later, Barack Obama asked only: “How many young people have learned to think by reading of Portnoy and his complaints?” “Millions,” grinned Mr Roth. Indelible ink, indeed.