GUY RAZ, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
The Strand Bookstore in New York is legendary. It claims to hold 18 miles of books. And that's where Annecy Liddell found herself a few weeks ago, just browsing.
Ms. ANNECY LIDDELL: I just wanted a book to read on the subway. I really don't read that much, I guess, but, you know, it's the summer, and you know, "30 Rock" is not on anymore. So I need something to do.
RAZ: She picked up a copy of Don Delillo's classic, "White Noise." But when she opened it up, she saw something scrawled on the inside cover, a name, the name of the previous owner. And the name was David Markson.
Ms. LIDDELL: The girls at the counter said, oh, this is one of Markson's. We have his whole collection. And I had no idea who were they talking about.
But then when I was reading it, I noticed, like, first, he'd put a lot of checkmarks by some passages, and then he put no, and then the comments just got meaner and meaner.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. LIDDELL: So then I looked him up and realized that he had just died.
RAZ: It turned out David Markson hadn't just been a casual reader. He was a writer himself and well-known in literary circles. David Foster Wallace even called Markson's novel "Wittgenstein's Mistress" pretty much the high point of experimental fiction.
And now, Annecy had a book from Markson's personal library in her possession.
Ms. LIDDELL: I thought it was worth putting on my Facebook. So I did that.
RAZ: After word spread of Annecy's find, other people started trolling the shelves of the Strand, also hoping to find annotated books from Markson's personal collection, which raised the question: How did his library wind up there?
Mr. CRAIG FEHRMAN (Writer): Because he wanted it to.
RAZ: That's Craig Fehrman. He wrote about Markson's lost library for The Boston Globe this week.
Mr. FEHRMAN: Markson actually had a long and personal relationship with the Strand. Employees knew him by name. He would go several times a week, and they would have conversations.
RAZ: Markson died this past June, and his family handed over 63 boxes of his personal library to the Strand.
Mr. FEHRMAN: And the Strand ended up sending a truck to pick up the books. From there, they sorted it out: These go to the philosophy section. These go to art history, novels, literary criticism and philosophy, a lot of books of classical literature, T.S. Eliot's letters and essays, books on Wittgenstein's philosophy. Then the books were sorted and just sent out on the Strand's normal shelves.
RAZ: Now, not all of Markson's books had his writing in them, but Annecy Liddell's copy of "White Noise" was furiously annotated.
Mr. FEHRMAN: He would put checkmarks by certain passages, underline passages that seemed to speak to him. But he would also kind of disagree and quibble with people. So somebody like Delillo, in the margins he would write: ugh, or no, or get to the point.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FEHRMAN: I think one...
RAZ: He would be having a conversation with Don Delillo in the margins of Delillo's book.
Mr. FEHRMAN: Right. And it wasn't the most pleasant conversation. I think the -my favorite comment was: This book might have set the all-time record for boredom.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RAZ: Craig Fehrman is a graduate student in English at Yale. He says you can learn a lot about authors, what may have influenced their work, by studying their personal libraries. But unfortunately, very few of those collections have ever been preserved.
Mr. FEHRMAN: Twain is an especially cringeworthy case study, I think, because even though Twain was always Mark Twain, the way we think of him today, his books were not well-cared for and they ended up scattered everywhere.
He actually started donating some of his own books off. And you would think once they were in a library, they might be more safe, but unfortunately, that wasn't the case.
The library circulated them with all their other books. So you would have souvenir hunters kind of swoop in, cut out pages with Twain's handwriting, his notes or him signing the flyleaf of the book. Twain just didn't really see these books as that important. He had the books that he had written, and that's what mattered to him.
RAZ: Herman Melville's collection was also famously scattered. After his death, his family saved just a few books, and even then only the smallest ones. They were short on space.
Mr. FEHRMAN: His will noted that he owned at least a thousand books, but scholars have been able to deduce only about 400 titles. The ones that survive are certainly interesting. He owned a copy of John Milton's poems, actually. From that you can tell things like he read "Paradise Lost" while he was writing "Moby Dick," certainly an important and fascinating connection to think about those two works side by side.
RAZ: That copy of John Milton's poems, by the way, was auctioned back in the 1980s for $100,000. So why wasn't the entire collection preserved, or for that matter, those of other famous writers?
Mr. FEHRMAN: As a culture, we just kind of fixate on this idea of a writer who's alone and doing his work. So things like manuscripts and diaries and journals and - those get saved, those get preserved and cared for.
But when it comes to a writer's books, they don't receive the same kind of care and attention just because they're less immediately connectable to the author's personality.
RAZ: And what about Annecy Liddell, the one who got hold of David Markson's personal copy of the Don Delillo novel, "White Noise"? Well, it turns out she never finished the book at all. Instead, she decided to read David Markson's novels. But she's keeping her tattered copy of "White Noise," nonetheless.
Mr. FEHRMAN: There's one guy that asked me if he could buy my book, but I politely declined. I mean, things like this don't happen to me. Like, I found this thing. I want to hold on to it. It's my talisman. I feel like it's going to help me someday.
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