BioBibliography

March 30, 2011

My work with the James Forman Library is ongoing, and involves a term new to my vocabulary, “bio-bibliography,” which is the study of a person by way of their book reading, and the traces of their life’s work that can be found in the books they left, beginning with jottings, underlines, inscriptions, bookmarks, to get happy on the trust that these aims are true, painted from memory.

I have found several things so far that support the living interpretation of the collection, as in a signed copy of Toward Soviet America (1932) by William Z. Foster, a Communist leader in the 1920s who ran for President in the Jazz Age; and a copy of River of No Return, by Cleveland Sellers, a memoir of SNCC, and lengthily inscribed to Forman.

My focus is Forman’s collection of FBI reports – giant stacks of manila-backed papers compiled by J. Edgar Hoover’s crew-cut knights on SNCC, James Forman himself, and mid-20th century mob bosses like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky.  Forman was a prolific chronicler of his own times, and studied the FBI reports as alternative, authoritarian versions of history – on which versions Forman called bluff.

Here is a page from Forman’s FBI Report, 1967, where Forman is introduced in terms of Hoover’s informant:

Here the G-Man assesses Forman’s psycho-political predicament:

Forman’s actions are cast in the mold of a master spy:

The FBI moves forward to make their subject an inFormant:

To study the “marginalia” of a reader’s book collection, one can never be sure whose marginalia it is.  Avid bookbuyers often get the bug for the musty majesty of used bookstores, which are cheap and bountiful.  A working survey of James Forman’s library, written last semester by QC bibliographist  David Gary, finds that “most of the books were acquired second hand by Forman at used bookshops in Detroit, New York, Ithaca, and Washington,” and that he “also bought books that were sold by public libraries after weeding.”  To authenticate the notations, one might get familiar with the subject’s reading, writing, thinking habits.   Otherwise you could hire someone like Joe Nickell, an investigator of mysteries.   Judging by several books in the personal collection of Campus Whits which have previous owners’ markings, it seems most readers stop underlining by page 20, especially if the volume was once assigned on the syllabus.

I worked at a used and rare book shop for five years in downtown Manhattan – the type of place James Forman might buy books.  But in the used book market, marked-up copies lessen the value of the “piece.”  When our shop bought the library of historian and fervent diarist Edward Ellis, alot of good books were sold cheaply because Ellis had a habit of highlighting passages with a yellow fluorescent pen. If anything, it would tell the bio-bibliographer how Ellis compiled his research, how and what information he valued as writer of history and as a prodigious jotter of his own times – and also that Ellis had little aesthetic for marginalia, since a yellow highlighter is about the most offputting of penscript.

One time, the shop had a copy of a rare Timothy Leary book, published in the heyday, which a curious browser was interested in but only because he liked how its former owner marked it up, with doodlings induced by a state of mind brightly bewizened by the brown acid. But we priced-up the book, at a bookdealer’s number, and the curious browser put it back.  If it was five bucks we would have had a sale, but the book’s rarity outweighed any doodle depreciation.  In both these cases, with the books of Edward Ellis and Timothy Leary, the value and lack of value of each book had equally nothing to do with its contents.

The writer Edmund Wilson, in 1926 (The American Earthquake: A Documentary of the Twenties and Thirties), takes bookdealers to task for what he sees as their exsanguination of books.  They are “the most blighting influence on the book shops,” who “traffic in first editions and other rarities.”  Wilson is acrimonious in recognizing that “there are book galleries just as there are art galleries,” which are staffed by “old gentlemen with eyeglasses and ragged mustaches, who seem to live in a state of morose trepidation for fear somebody will ask them for a copy of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

If the biobibliographer of the year 2111 found my copy of Gaming: The Future’s Language (1974, Richard D. Duke), they might have been turned on to the hermeneutics of finding this clipping I recently found stuck in the pages of the book, for some reason:

As a NYC tour guide for Gray Line Bus Tours, I like to tell passengers that the city is not just the Big Apple, but also The Big Book, since while you’re here you get a story.  So it was encouraging to find this Gray Line brochure from 2001, which trademarks the sentiment:

This book I found in the QC Special Collections room, which allows a peer into the third eye of design by which the QC campus has come to life:

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