May 1, 2013

50 annotated first editions—going to the highest bidder


Marginalia just got personal

It’s an impressive feat to collect 50 first editions of some of the most eminent authors writing today. But it’s a rare event when each of those fifty books has been carefully annotated by its author, revealing the secrets, anecdotes and reflections behind the writing.

This has been accomplished in First Editions Second Thoughts, an auction curated by rare book dealer Rick Gekoski to raise money for English PEN, the organisation committed to defending ‘writers and readers in the UK and around the world whose human right to freedom of expression is at risk.’ Gekoski gathered together 50 first editions of contemporary classics such as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. He then persuaded the authors of the texts to undertake the much-avoided task of returning to an earlier work, re-reading it and commentating on the writing of an earlier self.

The idea was dreamt up by the legendary literary agent Peter Straus, of RCW Literary Agency. Having worked closely with authors throughout his career, Straus must have known that the project would present an entertaining challenge for some writers, and a particular kind of torture for others.

In one annotation, JK Rowling remembers writing the book that would catapult her to world domination:

“I wrote the book … in snatched hours, in clattering cafés or in the dead of night … The story of how I wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is written invisibly on every page, legible only to me. Sixteen years after it was published, the memories are as vivid as ever as I turn these pages.”

While Ian McEwan, quoted in the FT, found the process of simply writing in a book painful:

“The sensation of writing in any hardback book always seems transgressive, unless it’s in pencil in the margin. And in this case I used black ink, so it was rather like defacing my own novel.”

And John Banville, also quoted in the FT, experienced only excruciating torment:

“I went through it with one eye shut, reading through splayed fingers … dreadful all around. The only thing that I got from it was the opportunity to defile my own book. It’s like peeing all over it. Take that, you swine!

The collection includes many prize-winning books, including Peter Carey’s Booker-winning ‘Oscar and Lucinda’

There’s no doubt that the books will be highly sought-after — and beyond most budgets. Gekoski hopes that each of the books will be seen as ‘the definitive copy of the book’ so in the case of an author like JK Rowling, the edition is sure to sell for over £1 million.

What makes the project so enticing will be the experiences of the books’ final owners who will read the texts accompanied by the voice of the author, commentating on lines, words and authorial decisions. As Goski puts it, it is this that makes the books truly unique:

The joy of these books is that, so often, the writer has responded in a voice as immediately recognizable as that in the work itself. There is nothing stale about this process – no formulaic response to the usual banal questions: where did the story come from, who are the characters based on? Such topics may be touched on, but they are considered in surprising ways. We encounter many annotations that make us laugh, or bring a tear to the eye.

The books will be auctioned on May 21st at Sotheby’s.


Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.