The Literary Way of Death

- by Bruce E. McKinney with Guest Writer, Maureen E. Mulvihill


Covid-19 has changed everything. The losses are deep and personal. We lose friends and family, we also lose some of our own possibilities. 


Yet as history shows, disaster often invites an explosion of ingenuity, creative ways of managing loss.  Thanks to endless online platforms and options, literally at our fingertips, we can transform sad testimonials, memorials, and funerals into Celebrations Of Life. And, yes, some of these homages have now entered the commercial book market with what can only be called In Memoriam auctions. A whole new approach here -- let’s take a look:


Consider Graham Arader’s offering this past fall. He reoriented his important map auction, scheduled in early October, by rewriting it as a memorial to Seymour Schwartz, the legendary map collector who left us on August 28th.  It would become, by dollar value, one of the largest sales in 2020: USD $18,610,968.  So it appears that a new tack, a new modus operandi, has been introduced by sellers: they’re folding into their sales an attractive layer of emotional resonance, so that buying becomes a gesture of respecting the deceased, a way of participating in the final good-bye. Is this the new gold standard in 2021 selling? Is this the clever new marketing approach, a new psychology for sellers to plumb and mine? From my perch at the Rare Book Hub, where my staff and I see a steady, daily stream of sales literature and auction notices, facts and feelings are now connected in fresh, inventive ways. 


Covid, its wicked spectre, puts me in a sentimental mood: it makes me confront my own mortality. And I see that it is no coincidence that sales are up these days in death literature – widow narratives by Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, et al.; reflections on death by Christopher Hitchens (Mortality, 2012) and especially by Siddhartha Mukherjee (The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, 2011). As I move into my seventh decade (dear friends, it’s been a joyful run!), I have many to thank. Certainly it’s both appropriate and possible to celebrate those lives whose career or preoccupation with the printed word has captured them and shaped their destiny. Let us not let those occasions slip by. For my part, I am grateful to acknowledge:


Contemporary Writers: Their material often appears randomly in dealer catalogues, at auction, or in online databases. Remembering them, as their related objects change hands, is simply confirmation of talent well used and appreciated. All hail, writers!


Collectors: Their acquisitions, spares, and duplicates at auction and in special dealer catalogues are a way to remember and connect.  When you pursue subjects seriously, it’s logical to learn about and appreciate kindred spirits whose collecting ambitions mirror your own.  And in time, you’ll notice that the best cataloguers emphasize provenance, because the history of ownership, particularly when it extends over decades and centuries, adds considerable value, as well as historical gloss, with references to sequential ownership by storied collectors. Yes, the collectors: they, too, should be thanked and remembered.


Dealers: Far from salesmen, these individuals often play an outsized role because of their knack for discovery. Their challenge these many centuries has been to find the prize copy: the great copy. And to that end, they skillfully craft the item description; if necessary, they gussy up their pitch. They set a price and terms. They wait for the promised payment(s) to arrive and hopefully clear the bank. And all the while, only the dealer – the critical interface between the item and the buyer -- knows all the secrets, all the details.


Librarians! Our colleagues, our guides in so many instances. Their contributions and accomplishments merit grateful attention. Why, a knowledgeable librarian can save a writer, a collector, a dealer, and a potential buyer hours of fruitless delving, not to mention serious printed errors and pricey missteps. Collectors tend to think that dealers and auction houses determine the boundaries of collecting, but I suggest it is the  librarians and those who adopt their practices and methods who identify the historical significance and timely relevance of an item. It is the librarians who keep up with the material and the bibliophilic vogues. It is the librarians who often bring early attention to new directions in book ownership, reading habits, and so on. My favorite is Callimachus, librarian of the great library at Alexandria; we thank him for devising organizational methods of accessing information, such as the bibliography! Yes, Librarians: let us acknowledge our gratitude.


Ne’er-do-wells: An amusing, if necessary, species. This curious miscellaneous set of all-purpose, unfulfilled geniuses, makes a career swinging at the ball, often missing -- but always out there trying. Every dealer and librarian accepts their calls, hoping as much as they do that they have found the Holy Grail. Keep swinging!


Our Associates: All the long-suffering partners, spouses, friends, and support staff. They, too, should have their day of celebration. They have lived with the victories, crises, resolutions, failures, and grab-bag of final results. They bear the battle scars, too, and are often unrewarded when Fortune smiles. But they endure, hopeful as we are for the cry, “Whale ahoy!”


Many are the opportunities for us to say thank you and congratulations to all of these individuals who have assisted us in these dire, uncertain times. They have helped us pragmatically in our buying choices and financial investments; but well beyond that, they have lent a human dimension of care and support to what we continue to do.


We offer this in gratitude.