In the course of selling books over the last eight years, I have had the good fortune to handle the letters and manuscripts of many authors. One of my favorites is a short note from J.B. Priestley, responding to a fan letter: “I am a writer and not a film star, and so have no signed photographs to give you or anybody else…As for the advice you ask for, I suggest that you should constantly practice writing, just as you would have to practice playing the violin if you wished to be a violinist.” I like the commonsense nature of the advice and the slightly peeved tone conveyed in just a few words. Technically the letter is for sale, but I’ve never catalogued it, exhibited it at a fair, or even priced it. Priestley, while rather out of favor with contemporary book collectors, wrote some fine novels, and I like the letter too much to let it go in a depressed market. It is carefully preserved in an acetate sleeve and an acid-free backing board and is stored with other as yet uncatalogued inventory.
On the occasions that I have prepared an author’s papers for acquisition by an institution, I have always marveled at how cavalierly very valuable letters and even manuscripts are kept: filed with yellowing newspaper clippings, employed as coasters with tell-tale coffee cup rings, and even used for grocery lists. Letters and manuscripts are, to most writers, the stuff of their trade. They exchange work with other writers for comments and encouragement. People who write for a living also tend to write a lot of letters-the writing just pours from them, the practice to which Priestley referred-and they often write to other writers. These relationships, these “associations” in book collecting terms, are perfectly natural to authors, and they generally think no more of them than you or I think about the letters that fill our mailbox.
In publishing OP magazine, I’ve exchanged letters with quite a few good writers, some of whom are collectible now and others who may turn out to be in the future. My partner and I believe that we should offer only the best prose about books. After all, booklovers love good writing.
Even though I know better as a bookseller and collector, I can’t seem to think about letters I have received in the course of publishing OP in collecting terms. They’re just pieces of the magazine puzzle. Perhaps the most egregious example of my own cavalier attitude is the essay Larry McMurtry sent us for the July/August issue, a short piece about why he no longer autographs books. Mr. McMurtry (we’re still on formal terms, not having met in person) and I wrote back and forth several times about possible topics for the essay. I sent computer-generated letters, and he always wrote back in long hand. The essay itself, “Why I Stopped Signing My Books,” is typed with handwritten corrections on every page. The book collector in me has taken stock of these details and their implications. The magazine editor, however, has not.
I realized that I had completely compartmentalized the two parts of my existence when I saw the McMurtry manuscript (yes, a four-page typescript, with handwritten corrections and a holograph letter, all in an envelope hand-addressed by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who happens to be the finest Western writer of his generation) lying on the floor underneath a sleeping cat. I am not by nature very organized and while preparing OP for publication, I keep in-progress articles on my desk. When I have finished with them, I email electronic copies to my partner, Dee Stewart, for copyediting and layout. At that point, my working hardcopy goes on the floor next to my desk. When the issue is finally done, my desk is empty, and all the detritus of the magazine is in the pile on the floor. Eventually, I bundle it all up and put everything into storage. I suppose I should have shooed the cat away, gathered up the manuscript, placed it in an acid-free file folder, and put it into the special boxes I keep for these sorts of things. But I didn’t. Manuscripts go on the floor when I’m done with them, and the cat is free to sleep on them. Pulitzer or no Pulitzer, I couldn’t bring myself to give Mr. McMurtry special treatment.
For a time I wondered about this behavior, this carelessness that I scold authors for. I realized that moving Mr. McMurtry into “collected” status and the rarified realm of archival storage would change my relationship with him. Anyone, for a price, can have a Larry McMurtry typescript or an autograph letter. By putting his manuscript on the floor, by letting the cat nap on the pages, I can think of Mr. McMurtry as a colleague, a fellow traveler in the difficult world of publishing. Now where is that McMurtry envelope? I have a shopping list to make.
Scott Brown publishes OP – the magazine for used, out-of-print, and antiquarian booksellers and collectors. In addition to Larry McMurtry, Nicholas Basbanes, Dana Gioia (American Book Award winner and NEA Chair), Paul Collins (author of Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books), Roy Parvin (Best American Short Stories), Amy Stewart (Barnes & Noble Discover author), and Billy Collins (U.S. Poet Laureate) have graced OP’s pages.
For more information, visit http://www.opmagazine.com