PEN America, which defends free expression, has concocted a perceptive, insightful way to raise money: They’ve asked 75 writers and artists to annotate the first edition of their classic works, which they then auction off. First Editions/Second Thoughts consists of writers like Toni Morrison, Gillian Flynn, Philip Roth, Stephen Sondheim, Eric Carle and Patti Smith publicly wrestling with the books they’re best known for. Morrison, for example, makes a brief note in Beloved that “the last two pages of Beloved could have been the opening since they describe what I was thinking when I began,” while Don DeLillo makes annotations on almost half the 827 pages of Underworld. “I have learned that many people have deep attachments to graham crackers,” Marilynne Robinson notes near a relevant passage in her classic novel Housekeeping. Robinson likes to annotate both in the margins and bowl right over her earlier writing by scribbling on top of the printed text. On Dec. 2, PEN and Christie’s held an auction, open to the public, of these and other annotated books, the proceeds from which benefited PEN.
Maybe it’s easier for me to say now how beguiling and alluring it is to watch writers watching their earlier work (and confront later, after the auction, the thorny question of why one writer’s book earned more than another’s). Some of them, like former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove with her collection Ten Poems, take delight in the process, but some of them are real sourpusses. Take Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove; McMurtry writes in the front pages of the copy in the auction that the novel was an attempt to understand his father, an attempt that failed. Huh, that’s strange: A lot of people consider that book the epic novel of the West, but never mind. Writing in a first edition of The Power Broker, Robert Caro confesses, “Sorry I agreed to do this. Brings back seven years tough to remember: broke, people afraid to talk to me about Moses, etc.” (Caro perks up as you get deeper into the annotated copy.) Michael Chabon says that The Mysteries of Pittsburgh “was written in a prolonged state of exaltation and hubris, by a young man, and annotated by a considerably older one, in acute embarrassment and mortification.”
Hats off to PEN for figuring out a way to make some money, engage some of America’s finest writers and artists, and allow the public a glimpse into the literary mind.
Claiborne Smith is the editor in chief of Kirkus Reviews.