Today I reread the first part of The White Album by Joan Didion. I put an
acetate protector around the dust jacket of a first edition of Susan Sontag's On
Photography, and I read parts of it again before putting it back on the
shelf. I read what Sontag had to say about how art and politics can and should
mix. Maybe they already do mix, but she says this as if any question about their separation could only occur to the Man from Mars. I also thought about how she thinks that when you photograph someone it's like "sublimated, or 'soft' murder". "Soft murder" sounded pretty catchy, like cartoon language. It
reminded me of Didion's remark that Jim Morrison, the fourth Door, had thought of himself as "an erotic politician".
I also reread parts of The Imaginary Signifier by Christian Metz. I read
what he had to say about perfume. He said any socially acceptable art that
depends on the senses of contact is a minor art. Not at all like the major
arts, which he says are based on the senses of distance and transparency.
I made a note to go up to Saks Fifth Avenue to pick up the new spring
fragrance catalogue. I had seen it over at a friend's house. It said on the
cover, "A Celebration of the Senses as Seen Through the Eyes of Horst". The
title of the catalogue was "Pulse Points". A great little give-away.
Collectible. I've always tried to give some attention to what appears to be ephemera, to collect the minor art forms.
Later, I finished The Eternal Moment by E. M. Forster. I had managed to
get a pretty fair copy at the Antiquarian Book Fair from a dealer from
California. It was the English edition with only a small tear on the dusk jacket.
The back of the jacket has some minor rubbing, and the endpapers were foxed,
but otherwise it was a good copy of this scarce title. A friend suggested that
maybe later I should read Forster's short story "When the Machine Stops". He
said it had to do with desire for firsthand experience.
I went to Forbidden Planet on 12th Street and Broadway, a bookstore that
specializes in comic books, sci-fi and pulp paperbacks. I was hoping to find a
copy of Walter Tevis's The Man Who Fell To Earth, a first printing. I was sure
they would have it, but they didn't. Instead, I found a copy of Pierre
Boulle's Planet of the Apes; it was a copy I had never seen before, a 1964 Signet
wrapper edition. The cover illustration depicted three astronauts- two whites
and a black- superimposed on the large head of an ape. This configuration
reminded me of some of Picabia's paintings from the 1940's, ones that were based on the commercial illustration systems used for American movie posters and the covers of hard-boiled detective paperbacks.
I looked at the rare comics and checked out the prices they were asking
for a couple of Tarzans- early Dell copies. One of them had a cover in which
the figure of Tarzan was a hand-drawn illustration superimposed over a
photograph of the jungle. I had only seen this technique used on two other comics, one a Submariner and the other a Superman. For the Tarzan, the superimposition created a seamlessness that made it hard to figure out what was really happening. It was if the figure of Tarzan was a dream, a "real" illusion, and the jungle was a film, the impression of an illusion. I like it. I thought that if I could do this- use two different codes of representation simultaneously- then I might be able to create what appeared to be an "art directed" picture.
After I left the Planet, I went over to a second-hand bookshop I know on
7th Street and Third Avenue. The lady who runs the place holds books for me.
She said she had been saving for me a first trade edition of Walter Percy's
The Moviegoer. I've tried to read this book three times, but I could never get
past page 25. On the jacket flap of this particular edition there was a
summary; it said, "A house, a street, a city can be more itself on the screen than in actuality." These were probably the words of some junior editor's assistant priming the curious, hyping he uninformed with a kind of Westernized haiku.
It was the sort of blurb language that has become so familiar through television and ad copy. Reading it, I thought of Lew Welch, the famous Beat poet, who used to support himself writing copy for clients'products. One of Welch's haikus, before he walked off into the desert with is shotgun, was "Raid kills bugs dead." I will try The Moviegoer a fourth time, but not with this copy. The lady who runs the store has marked the book $12. I give her a ten and that's fine with her. Fine for me, too, because it's a $450 book in this condition. This kind of "find" happens maybe once every six years.
The Barnard Bookstore is an out-of-print bookshop on 18th Street, west of
Fifth Avenue. Since I had 20 minutes to kill before seeing Vanishing Point at
the Cinema village, I thought I'd go in. Earlier in the week I had seen an
American edition of Mandingo, a huge, completely ridiculous copy of this treasure.
Usually books of this size are broken at the spine and creased and stained,
and even though this particular copy wasn't exactly "jim mint", it was
certainly worth a second look. It had a fine bright dust jacket with an illustration that was new to me: a variation of the Southern white belle next to the black slave stud. I bought it. I was happy. This copy was going on my shelf right next to Naked on Roller Skates, Nigger Heaven and Jack Woodford's Peeping Tom.
The owner had restocked the fiction since my last visit and besides
Mandingo, I also found The Casting Couch and Me, uninhibited memoirs of young actors and actresses, and Thunder La Boom, a novel by Ann Steinhardt, who is quoted on the jacket flap as claiming she became a stripper because it was the only job that allowed her enough time to write. The jacket of Thunder La Boom had a great out-of-focus photograph of a Las-Vegas-type show girl, frozen between what appeared to be a bump and what probably became a grind.
The fifth floor of the Strand Bookstore is where they keep their rare books.
The stock is out in the open and reasonably priced. If they recognize you
they will leave you only to look. You can give the sellers your want lists, and
every once in a while they find something. Off to the side of the main room,
with fiction and literature, is a room where they keep movie, photography,
and autographed books. I head there first. There's also a section on humor.
For some reason, humor has the lowest prices of any genre, perhaps because
there are so few collectors buying humor.
When I first started collecting cartoon and humor books, I was surprised
at how available and inexpensive they were. I was used to paying $300 for a
copy of Carrie, Stephen King's first book. Or $150 for Gravity's Rainbow. Or
$650 for Horseman Pass By, by Larry McMurtry, later to be filmed as Hud. I
find it's always best to collect what you like and what no one else is
collecting. Two rules of thumb, so to speak. With the humor section of most
secondhand or rare bookstores, these two rules generally apply. For instance, a 1959 first printing of Morey Amsterdam's Keep Laughing, signed and inscribed to "Rosemarie" (the same "Rose" that starred with Amsterdam on the Dick Van Dyke Show), was $7.50. Not only was the price extraordinary, but this copy had also been scanned by the CIA. Throughout the book a "reading agent" (as in the movie Three Days of the Condor) had annotated pages with such cryptic codes as "CIA, Hayden, double-checks, an expected number, swim hole #3, clean 921." Or "Wut, Zuh, cherry daddy." Needless to say, CIA read books are very rare. Most, like books collected by university libraries, will never be available for public purchase.
At Hollywood Book City in Los Angeles I bought a signed and inscribed
Joey Adams It Takes One To Know One for $10. Myron Cohen's Laughing Out Loud was $5, and Harry Hershfield's Laugh Louder, Live Longer was fifty cents! More recently, at Mendoza's on Park Row, here in New York, I got three Jack Douglas titles, all inscribed to Burt Bacharach, the newspaper columnist, and all for $12. A 1952 first printing of Abner Dean's Come As You Are cost me $6.
Dean's cartoons and cross-eyed muses could be an unexpected discovery; back in 1943 psychiatrists started using Dean's drawings for discussion with their
patients. An album of cartoons by Whitney Darrow, Jr. titled Please Pass The
Hostess, first edition, 1949, cost $10. Claimed the publisher: "This second album for Darrow contains more laughs than the first. This is a matter of simple arithmetic, i.e., it contains more drawings than the first." At a street fair
recently, I found a book by Helen E. Hokinson called There Are Ladies Present
(Dutton, 1952 first printing) for $2. Hokinson was one of the few women
cartoonist who was consistently published throughout the '20's, '30's, '40's and
'50's. The author of several cartoon albums- The Ladies, God Bless 'Em, When Were You Built and My Best Girls- Hokinson has one of the most recognizable styles of any cartoonist in the 20th century. A people's cartoonist, Hokinson is an example of an artist I would call "eye-minded".
Some people who collect books like to have a copy of the book with the
author's signature in it, or maybe with an inscription, or even a presentation copy with the publisher's advance review slip laid in. Some want a deluxe copy
bound with marbled boards or gilt-stamped leather spine. Maybe a copy with folio sheets showing various title versions. I don't know, the wants go on and on: uncorrected proofs, spiral-bound proofs, annotated Proofs, manuscripts, letters, letters with the author's intentions...
I want the best copy. The only copy. The most expensive copy. I want
James Joyce's Chamber Music. I want the 1907 version, the "variant", the first
variant, the one with the lighter green binding, the taller trim size, laid
endpapers ass opposed to wove, the one with the correct folding signature C. I
want mine to be one of the advance review copies, one of 509 copies, the
publisher's ALS to a certain British man of letters tipped to the front pastedown.
I want the tipped-in letter to be dated May 3, 1907. I want this date
because I know that the British Museum's copy (destroyed during World War 11) was received on May 8, and the Bodleian Library copy was received on May 11. I want the earliest copy on record. I want the copy that is rarer than anyone had
previously dreamed of. I want the copy that dreams.
I remember finding a copy of Robert Frank's The Americans, the Grove Press
edition, in a discard bin outside of Caldor's in Bridgehampton, Long Island, New
York. There was a sign on the bin saying, "For Free". The find was like
beach-combing. I thought I saw something, recognizing its outline up ahead:
black and white, rectangular, short title, a photograph, people on a bus. I got
closer. I felt myself moving by wading rather than swimming. The feeling had
something to do with anticipation. The book was mixed in with bars of soap,
odd-sized sneakers, children's coloring books, calendars, and Harlequin
paperbacks with their covers torn off.
How did I get there? It's not possible, I thought. Did some distributor
or store manager think there would be a customer for such a specific title?
True, they sell books inside, but usually the family or best-seller types.
Was it once remaindered for a dollar? I looked for a stamp or a red dot on the
bottom edge. Neither mark was there. Had it been inside at all? Or could
someone have simply read it and passed it on? I mean, what strange drift or
current made it end up here? I thought about desert islands. I thought about
the wave that brought it in. It must have been perfect.
Amazing, The Americans, in this town, outside this store, in this bin,
with a sign saying "For Free". This doesn't happen.
I read Michael Herr's Dispatches before I saw Francis Ford Coppola's
Apocalypse Now. I saw Ridley Scott's Blade Runner before I read Philip Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I listen to the sound tracks of both movies in my studio. A lot of the books I collect have a movie version. I get the
movies on VHS. It's new, about six years new. They're prerecorded and come in a box the size of a large paperback. Sometimes I have the book and the movie
cassette on my shelf: Ninety-two in the Shade, Play It As It Lays, The Hustler,
The Subterraneans, Panic In Needle Park, In Cold Blood. When I look at them
both I don't see a comparison, I don't see study, I don't see fancified
interest, I don't see hobby or appreciation, I don't see exhibition or
connoisseurship. The thing is, I don't see these things on my shelf. I just stare at them. They're there everyday. They change me.
I don't have many videocassettes, but I'm starting to collect them. I'm
collecting them for the same reasons as the books: I like having the lives of
these things around me. I like having lives I can go into and out when I'm
I put Nabokov's Lolita and Kubrick's Lolita next to each other. The book
is Monarch Select paperback, MS27. No image on the cover. All graphics.
Just the name, "Lolita" in red, stenciled in longhand against two background
bands of yellow and white. The movie is an MGM/CBS Home Video. It's in a thin cardboard slipcase. On the cover is a pastel illustration of Sue Lyon as
Lolita. She has orange, heart-shaped sunglasses on. There's a lollipop in her
mouth. "Black comedy", "Tragic farce", "Comic despair" are italicized to the
bottom left of her head. On the back, small black-and-white stills of Quilty
and Humbert Humbert. The box reminds me that Nabokov screenplayed his own book.
The way the information is given is statistical. The packaging reminds me
of baseball cards.
I turn both covers out on the shelf. You could call the arrangement
highlighted. I think about how my collection is getting "eye-minded".
One of my strangest finds was something of my own. In 1976 I had xeroxed a
14-page "list" called The Comedy Dungeon. I made about 50 copies, and I think I left probably 40 of them at Jenny Holzer and Colleen Fitzgibbon's
"Manifesto Show" two years later. There was one sentence to a page, typed, on green xerox paper. The list was about World War I. It went like this: "Derain is in a motorcycle unit in the north. Braque is a second lieutenant. Fernand Leger
is at the front with the supply corps. Albert Gleizes has been at the front
since the outbreak. Dufy is in Le Harve. Groult suffered an arm wound.
Duchamp-Villon is a medical aide. Tobeen is a man of iron serving in the
noncombatant corps. Glannattasion and Kisling are in foreign infantry regiments. Drera is a corporal in a battery of one hundred in the Tenth Artillery. Rouveyre is writing poems in honor of his gunner friends. Picabia is at the front as a painter. G. de Chirico is waiting philosophically for the end of the war."
It was one of my first stabs at sounding or looking like fiction, but
being about nonfiction. I found the copy in a stand outside the Pageant Book
Shop on 9th Street, near Third Avenue, right around the corner from where I lived then. This book cost me a dollar. I like to think of it as one of those
"finds" that comes once every six years.
The copy was dog-eared and had the owner's name inked in on the flyleaf.
Tina L'Hotsky was the name. Hey, I knew Tina. I am a great fan of her
Muchachas Espanolas Locas (or Crazy Spanish Girls). I own three copies of this
classic "artist's book".
If she doesn't move to Seattle, the next time I see Tina in Los Angeles,
I'm going to present her with this copy of The Comedy Dungeon, annotated with a joke. It's going to be: "I went to see a psychiatrist. He said, 'Tell me
everything'. I did, and now he's doing my act".