Years ago, I was working at Second Story Books in Bethesda, Maryland when a collection of Easton Press books came into the store. You might be familiar with Easton Press. They produce fine, limited editions of the world’s greatest works of literature by the world’s greatest authors for the collectible market. In my opinion, these books are the epitome of the faux collectible: books for collectors clueless about what collecting is all about. When they buy Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations for $200 for their newly designed library, they are merely flashing their rolls for their friends.
The real big pimping in collecting is in accumulating intellectual capital and getting access to information. In 2003, Easton Press published Dale Carniege’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Great author? Great literature? Doubtful, but for the true collector Carneige’s book is strangely on target. Quite simply, great collectors seek to win friends and influence people. Building a valuable library is not about creating a room of one’s own. I liken that to hoarding. Sitting like Smaug the dragon next to your pristine copy of Tolkien’s The Hobbit under glass in your cave. That is all well and good, but is lonely and adds little value to your collection in the long run.
The first book I ever bought for my William Burroughs collection was The Dead Star (1969), published as an accordion-style pamphlet by Jan Herman’s Nova Broadcast Press in 1969. At the time, I knew nothing about the book at all, except that it had Burroughs’s signature (a nice, tight signature rather than a later scrawl), and it was affordable at $60. Many collectors would be satisfied with that simple act of possession and the opportunity at a bargain, but that is only where the process of book collecting starts, as well as book collecting’s real value. Once I obtained the book, I starting obtain information about it. Who is Jan Herman? What else did Nova Broadcast Press publish? What is The Dead Star as a publication, and how is it representative of Burroughs’s work? Or of the book as a form, generally? This leads to contacting Herman, obtaining all the publications of the Nova Broadcast Press, tracing The Dead Star back to Jeff Nuttall’s My Own Mag, buying all the issues of My Own Mag, researching Jeff Nuttall, and getting in contact with the Nuttall estate. Herman (who happens to be a great guy and fun to hang out with) introduces you to Carl Weissner (who also happens to be a great guy and fun to hang out with). They love telling stories about Burroughs and sharing their insights on Burroughs’s work. You start collecting the works of Herman and Weissner? Ad infinitum. Like Borges’s Library of Babel, the process of accumulation is endless.
Soon you not only have Burroughs’s The Dead Star, but you have a whole network of people and publications associated with The Dead Star and its larger universe, which in the paranoia of collecting is a black hole that encompasses Everything. From Burroughs to Book Art to Borges. You no longer have a simple collection; you have an archive and a community. Now it is time to influence people. This is where the Internet and self-publication come in. Sharing the archive is crucial to further building the archive. Thus, RealityStudio.org is on one level merely extensions of my book collection. At their core, they are a virtual bookshelf that displays and annotates my collection, and allows others to do the same to their and my collections. Think Jerome McGann and his project on Rossetti or other interactive databases dedicated to authors such as Shakespeare. Thus, scanning and writing about the archive is not a loss of possession, value, or energy. Quite the opposite. It is a gift that, like all gifts, is designed to encourage something in return. This return can come in many forms: Friendships with other collectors or booksellers. Offers of more books relating to Burroughs. Personal...