Sometimes being a literary scholar means that I am stuck in libraries doing research the old fashioned way—with a stack of physical books, a notebook, and lots of pens. At other times I do get the chance to travel and see a bit of the world and visit the places where my favorite writers have lived, or walk down a street where a scene in a book takes place. However, once in a while information comes to me through purely accidental means.
Last week I attended the New England Antiquarian Book Show in Concord, New Hampshire. This show is held twice a year, and I usually attend both of them. The last time I was there I noticed a dealer who was selling an entire set of books by Paul Bowles, many of which were inscribed by the author. I have been hunting first edition Paul Bowles books for a few years now, but since I have very limited resources I usually can only look at them. About a year ago I began buying first edition books by Bowles, but selectively and one at a time. This year I noticed that the same dealer was set up and he also had his collection of Bowles books with him. I thought that it must be a sign.
I looked through his collection of Bowles books for sale and I gleefully noticed that two or three were actually within my price range. (For those who are curious my price range these days is under $250 for one book.) I picked up three books and noticed that one of them was inscribed to a “Steve Eastman.” I asked the dealer how he came to acquire the books and he informed me that he once lived in Tangier and knew Bowles. The Steve Eastman to whom the books were inscribed was his son. For reasons Harland Eastman (the dealer) did not go into, Steve was selling off his collection.
Harland then told me a story of how he used to invite Paul Bowles to dinner quite often. Bowles, he recounted, always demanded to know who was going to be at the dinner, and if he did not care for a person who was going to be present he (Bowles) would decline the invitation. He went on to describe Bowles as a very “shy” and introverted person. Harland’s story is corroborated by many other stories I have heard about Bowles. For the last fifty years of his life Paul Bowles lived in Tangier, Morocco, always on the boundary of mainstream culture. Nevertheless, he was a cult figure who attracted hundreds of “pilgrims” to Tangier. Sadly, I was never able to meet him.
This kind of accidental research often comes at inconvenient times. For me, I have just finished a six-year project on Bowles with Michael Cotsell from the University of Delaware. Just when I thought I was ready to move on to new projects, my conversation with Harland Eastman sparked an idea about Bowles and Tangier as a possible future project, for which an essay I have temporarily discarded would work wonderfully. The problem is, will I have enough patience not to put this idea in front of my next book project, which has stood so long in the background waiting for the just finished Bowles project to end.
Perhaps more interesting is the fact that an inscribed book has been put up fort sale by someone who is still alive (Harland’s son is still living, I believe, since I made the check out to the son). In Sir Vidia’s Shadow Paul Theroux tells the story about how he came upon a set of his books inscribed to V. S. Naipaul in a used bookshop in London. Naipaul had sold the books to a dealer, who in turn was selling them to the general public. Theroux was understandably upset by this and felt betrayed by Naipaul.
It is a little sad when I come across a book inscribed to a person who wants to, for whatever reason, sell that book. I have several books that have been inscribed to other people. Those books also tell a story about ownership. Perhaps it was the book that was finished with the owner and not the other way around, as I previously believed. In any case, I am quite happy to have those books and they do provide certain relevance in regards to research, especially on authors (like Bowles) that I have spent a decade or more thinking about. Perhaps our books own us, and they in turn find neglect a capital offense for which we are banished from their company. If this is the case, then I am happy to provide a welcoming, if temporary, safe house.