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:

James FormanLast week at Rosenthal Library Auditorium, civil rights leader Julian Bond was invited as distinguished guest speaker to celebrate the acquisition of The James Forman Library for the QC Civil Rights Archive.  James Forman was an executive secretary and active member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  Julian Bond – who as a student at Morehouse College spearheaded protest action from the booths of Yates & Milton Drugstore in Atlanta, GA. – joined the SNCC as communications director, and among other things worked with photographer Danny Lyons to document the Movement.

Africana Studies Director Dr. Julmisse opened the evening with cogent and evocative remarks.   QC president Dr. Muykens introduced Mr. Bond, and did not buck any cliches about the campus-comedy dean, as he numerously referred to the James Forman collection as “papers,” when the acquisition is not Forman’s papers, but his personal library of books.  Forman’s papers are in the Library of Congress.  Not the gravest error, but a conspicuous one.  Archivists are up in arms over that crusty old dean.

James Forman’s son, James, Jr., spoke humbly and enthusiastically, and attested to the sublimating effect of Julian Bond as a speaker. And Julian was masterful.  He provoked, quipped, stated statistics with the narrative command with which he also deployed rhetorical tricks.  He looked back to the 1960s, when the movement was alive with change, and he was keen to the ravages going forward.   Summing up the old days with the new, he used a device the Greeks called Antanaclasis, noting that back then “good music was popular, and Popular Music was good.”  Julian must have seen the tribute to Aretha Franklin at last week’s Grammy Awards.
Julian Bond Saturday Night Live 1
Watch footage of Julian Bond’s remarks here.

Mr. Bond had the style of a seminal toastmaster, if the subject of the roast was Race in the United States.  Race was not about skin, but power.  Race trumps education, health care and war.  In James Forman’s autobiography, Making of Black Revolutionaries, Forman is passionate about reading and knowledge, and repulsed by his service in the Air Force, where institutional racism is the suppressor of the active life of the mind.

Julian Bond Saturday Night Live 2Julian made clear his own stance, dropping phrases about “right-wingers” and ‘Tea Baggers.”  Though he promotes the role of government in creating civic and social justice, he also founds his approach to government by the faith that government can be caused to change.  That it is by nature an organic body in flux, not a bedrock that refuses the drill of the people.  The setting is ripe for action, in a world where once “banks lent to people, instead of people lending to banks.”  Julian is both a veteran of the Atlanta Senate chambers and the stage of Saturday Night Live.  On SNL (which is available to watch on Netflix, season 2, episode 18, with Brick and Tom Waits as musical guests), Julian is more ready to play prime time than the Not Ready For Prime Time Players, and the skits skewer race and exploit white politics.  He opens the show on stage in a 3-piece suit, reciting a litany of his past accomplishments, and concludes that his appearance on the show was not based on his pedigree, but only because they wanted a “chocolate Easter bunny.” It’s archival Julian Bond Saturday Night Live 4evidence that Saturday Night Live was once counterculture.

This semester, Campus Whits will be working to accession James Forman’s Library, 75 boxes of books on Southern history, NVA pamphlets, true-crime Mafia paperbacks, subscriptions to Marxist journals, handouts on health, and FBI reports.  James Forman was enlightened and pugnacious and determined, and his revolution, unlike much freedom fighting, was nonviolent.  As the event at Queens College Rosenthal Library came to end, a handful vets of the movement stood up and chanted “We Shall Overcome.”  It was the first time I’d heard it live.  Louis Armstrong has his own version.

Julian Bond