Patrons of Sotheby's rare book sales see a great many dazzling things: Shakespeare’s First Folio, Audubon's Birds of America, Joyce’s Ulysses. But in 40 years in the rare book trade I have never seen a collection of books to compare with those in this catalogue. Here are major works by 50 outstanding contemporary writers, most are extensively annotated by its author, each a unique copy of the book, and a fascinating record of the author’s relation to it. We call it: First Editions, Second Thoughts (or FEST).
The joy of these books is that, so often, the writer has responded in a voice as immediately recognizable as that in the work itself. There is nothing stale about this process – no formulaic response to the usual banal questions: where did the story come from, who are the characters based on? Such topics may be touched on, but they are considered in surprising ways. We encounter many annotations that make us laugh, or bring a tear to the eye.
The self-scrutiny of authors, it turns out, is (often) like their creative works: highly considered, crafted, thoughtful and thought-provoking. And like works of literature themselves, such annotations give a peek into the soul of their maker. In many cases, the commentaries will affect how the book is to be read and understood in the future. (Because this catalogue only gives a taster of the authorial annotations, it is necessary to view the books in order to appreciate them properly.)
The brilliant idea for FEST arose in 2005 when the literary agent, Peter Straus, suggested that English PEN hold a charity auction of books annotated by living authors. The initial project never quite took off, and two years later only two writers (Julian Barnes and Joanna Trollope) had offered contributions.
When I joined the Board of English PEN a few years later, the then Director Jonathan Heawood suggested that we resurrect the idea. Maybe an actual rare book dealer might make the project work?
We began by writing to eminent UK and Commonwealth writers to ask if they would participate:
"Feel free to scribble second thoughts, marginalia or drawings throughout the work inwhatever fashion moves you, thus singling out this particular first edition and making it even more desirable for a reader or collector to want to own."
Remarkably, within a week eighteen writers had agreed, and within a few months we reached the nice round number of 50. It is a remarkable list of major novelists, playwrights, poets, memoirists and writers of non-fiction, with many winners of the great literary prizes (Nobel Prize for Literature, Man Booker, Orange and others) represented.
The results, as the books reveal, are astonishing: some authors annotated on many pages of the text; others wrote sustained comments on the endpapers and blanks; some edited and corrected the text, one marked a book for a performance or a reading; a substantial number offered their own illustrations. In almost every case, my hope “that the result will stand as the definitive copy of the book” was comprehensively satisfied.
Many writers enjoyed the process. Often they were pleased by what they read, though sometimes embarrassed. (One of the authors chides himself for immature and pretentious writing in a novel written in his twenties).
A few writers found the process trying. "This is harder than writing the bloody book!" one told me, while another said that the process "almost killed me." Thankfully they persevered.
Authors don't merely write their books, they are stuck with them, recurrently interrogated about them, and need to have something to reply, though they may be reluctant to do so. When they discuss their work, inevitably, some inward process of annotation - or if the term is inappropriate here, some retrospective engagement with the text - goes on. Must go on. And if an author can talk about their own work, surely they might do that talking in the book itself?
Writers, we are sometimes told, can be self-engrossed and difficult. I have said so myself, and about myself. So it was delightful to find that, in dealing with such a range of eminent authors, I met with nothing but courtesy and enthusiasm. Having agreed to participate, many asked questions but none balked, and none were balky. The books arrived on time, and opening each was like being a kid opening birthday presents. I love this! Look at that! Oooh, thanks!
We are enormously indebted to all these writers for these gifts, for the time and high intelligence they have brought to this project. Their responses are testimony to the esteem in which English PEN is held.What better “union” for writers could there be? English PEN promotes the freedom to write and the freedom to read. Internationally, we campaign on behalf of persecuted writers, editors and publishers. In the UK we campaign to reform laws that curb free expression, and for greater access to literature.
“Greater access to literature,” indeed. That’s what each of these books provides. It has been a joy, honour and a privilege to curate this auction, the most exciting experience of my bookselling career.
By Rick Gekoski, Curator
By Gillian Slovo, President, English PEN
Working to defend and promote free expression, and to remove barriers of access to literature
250 auctions each year in over 70 categories from fine and decorative art to jewellery and collectibles