Thursday, March 22, 2012

Fran Lebowitz On Book Collecting

by Stephen J. Gertz

Fran  Lebowitz,  whose  debut  collection of devastatingly witty essays,  Metropolitan Life (1978), and  its  companion,  Social Studies (1981), put her on the literary star map as a latter-day Dorothy Parker,  and whose  subsequent "writer's  blockade" has   become  the most celebrated case of scribe with blank slate in recent - and, perhaps, since ancient - history, does not need an excuse to talk about books and reading.

In an interview-essay from 2010,  Fran Lebowitz on Reading, that has not received the broad attention it deserves, she discusses, amongst other things, rare books and their collection.

"I'm not a collector," she says. "I don't care about things like that. I'm not a collector because I'm not that organized. I'm not grown-up enough to collect things."

"But," she adds. "I have acquired a stellar collection of odd books, weirdo books, books that don't fit easily into categories."

A category, however, that her odd books do easily fit into is heteromorphic literature, a broad, all encompassing genre that, under this name has a nice, academic gloss that lends credence to their collection and study. The common alternative is Weirdiana. In Lebowitz's case, perhaps Oddiana is the proper category.

"I have a very small but choice collection of books about the Masons, the Odd Fellows and the Elks. I particularly like Odd Fellows books. They're a little harder to find… You don't hear about the Odd Fellow much any more. I looked them up in the telephone book here but I guess in New York you don't need a separate listing for Odd Fellows."

Though she can be bitingly caustic she is invariably polite, so it should come as no surprise that she is a fan of a certain arbiter of the social graces.

"I collect Emily Post. I think I have everything of hers but I don't keep up with the revised editions. I have a book called Manners for the Millions [1932, in three different editions], which is a manual for immigrants to the United States. Emily Post may tell you how to properly address a Colonel, this tells you not to wipe your nose on your sleeve."

Many careers as a rare bookseller have begun when personal collecting got out of hand and insanity prevailed.

"I was once in Cleveland on a book tour and a bookshop there had just bought the library of a parochial grammar school and they were selling the books for ten cents a pound. There were these big meat scales. I went crazy…For about thirty dollars I bought eight thousand books.

Beware the parent whose personal habits and dire influence can lead children astray and onto a dark path for life.

"My mother was a big bookworm. Not a bibliophile. My mother got me into what has been for my entire life certainly what could be called my drug addiction: the reading of detective stories. I read five or six a week and must have eight billion of them…I suppose I read them for the atmosphere or the characters but I read them like a drug. I read them instead of taking heroin."

Don't imagine that Fran Lebowitz is a literary snob:

"I love trash. I like Jacqueline Susann and the early Harold Robbins. I love Jackie Collins."

She also has an interest in smut.

"I have a pornography collection. It's not a huge one. The really good stuff is too expensive for me. I wrote some for a company called Midway Press...

"The first one I wrote myself and it was called House of Leather...Then I wrote two or three others with about five people...My copies of these books are gone and I'm not looking for them. I have a finicky aversion to buying second hand pornography because I know where it's been."

Her reading and collecting interests are not confined to detective fiction, weird books, etiquette manuals, and porn.

"I would say that if I collect anything literary I collect O'Hara first editions, not that they're that hard to find. Each printing was about eight billion. O'Hara is a really important American writer and a really overlooked one."

On the life of a dedicated reader frittering away precious time, Fran has this to say:

"I would rather read than have any kind of real life, like working, or being responsible...All the things that I never did because I was reading, so what? If someone said to me, how did you spend your life? I'd have to say, lying on the sofa reading."

Fran Lebowitz's relationship to books is intimately overt.

"...When I was a very little child after I'd read a book I really liked I'd kiss it. Love is really the word... Children have emotional relationships with inanimate objects...The way a child makes a person out of a doll, which I never did, I made people out of books."

It is always comforting to be surrounded by loved ones.

Read the full interview here.

This interview, and others with Diana Vreeland, John Waters, Susanna Moore, and Albert Murray, appears on the website I recently discovered for an impressive book shop in Harlem, NYC, The Private Library. They appear in the website's section, The Well-Dressed Bibliophile. I have devoured everything on those pages; a very tasty meal.

If you haven't seen Public Speaking, Martin Scorsese's 2010 HBO documentary about Fran Lebowitz, why not? It's now available on DVD.

Here's the trailer:

She is the consummate New Yorker-Smart-Funny-Yakker. I watched it three times in a row.

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