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Bibliomania: Reading American English

He had one thought, one love, one passion: the books! And this love, this passion burned his heart, spoiled his life, devoured his existence.

~Gustave Flaubert, Bibliomania, 1837

David Moos, art + reading contributor, Art Advisor and former Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), is re-reading Richard Prince’s American English. Since the 1970s, Prince has cultivated a controversial reputation for creating work that consciously appropriates, copies, and subverts pop cultural icons, irreverently challenging notions of high versus low culture, authenticity, and authorship. The conceptual artist also happens to be an avid book collector, a passion that serves as a perfect foil to his art. First published in Art in America in 1988, and again in 2003 as an exhibition catalogue (London: Sadie Coles HQ), American English is a visual record of a small sampling of Prince’s book collection, as well as an insightfully honest, often funny, autobiographical reflection on the motivations behind his compulsive collecting.

David is likewise an ardent collector of books, his own substantial library displaying a special focus on artist’s books and catalogues, many of which are rare or no longer in print. He notes that one section of particular interest includes:

“a small collection of books that are inscribed by artists who are neither the subject nor the author of the books: Julian Schnabel inscribing a book of Ernest Hemingway’s poems, and perhaps one of my most valued books, The Poems of Paul Celan inscribed ‘For David, Paul Celan’ by Anselm Kiefer. There are other items in this collection, but it is a mere branch within the larger arbor of the library.”

Where book collecting is concerned, the tipping point between hobby and obsession is often imperceptible. Relatedly, while bibliophilia denotes a passionate love of books and reading, bibliomania takes the obsession a step further, referencing a compulsive need for acquiring and possessing physical texts. Most of us with bookish leanings straddle the line between the two.

Certainly, bibliomania is not a modern affliction, though it has historically been a sport of the affluent. The term was popularized in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when the growth of the second-hand book trade dramatically elevated the cultural status and covetability of antiquarian texts among the upper classes. During this period, compulsive book collecting was pathologized as a form of madness, with collectors sometimes going to extreme measures to obtain the bookish objects of their desire, occasionally losing their fortunes in the process. English cleric and bibliographer Thomas Frognall Dibdin directly linked the ‘symptoms’ of bibliomania with an acute longing to possess specific categories of books:

“First editions, true editions, black letter-printed books, large paper copies; uncut books with edges that are not sheared by binder’s tools; illustrated copies; unique copies with morocco binding or silk lining; and copies printed on vellum.” (Bibliomania; or Book Madness, London: Thoemmes Press and Kinokuniya Co., 1809, repr. 1897, 1997).

The bibliomaniac is as much (often more) preoccupied with the materiality of books—their ‘objectness’—as with their content. Along such aesthetic lines, Prince mentions that his collection is becoming distinctly “eye-minded”. He is preoccupied with how the volumes sit alongside each other visually, systematically documenting them in staged groupings.

But more than this, Prince’s collecting is almost certainly driven conceptually by his attraction to the book as a social signifier, its market value intimately entangled with its cultural capital. His passion is enabled by his significant financial success as an artist (he is among the highest earning living artists), fuelling his voracious acquisition of twentieth century books, manuscripts, letters, magazines, and ephemera, dating from 1949 (the year he was born) to 1984 (in honour of George Orwell’s well-known novel of that title). His collection is predominantly housed in a private two-story library in upstate New York, which includes a fire-proof, water-proof vault to protect the most precious of tomes. Prince claims to have no idea (or interest in) how many books he owns. The thrill lies in the accumulation.

David notes that the subtitle to American English is Prince’s declaration that “A day in the life of a book collector suggests that the impulses behind collecting are part obsession, part quest and part fantasy.” In this, the artist-collector is driven by the lure of the unattainable object, his focus perpetually set on the next acquisition. However, Prince’s pursuit is not fixated on the one-off book-object, but on complete editions of ‘unique’ variable copies.

He allegedly owns 51 copies of of Nabokov’s Lolita, for example, including an uncorrected proof, an advance proof of the first British edition (1959), a copy inscribed to Nabokov’s wife (first English edition 1959), a copy inscribed to his son (first Japanese edition 1959), a copy inscribed to Morris Bishop (1965), and the author’s annotated desk copy revised in pencil for the first Olympia Press edition (Paris, 1955).

In American English, Prince details his search for the ever-elusive ‘ultimate’ copy thus:

“I want the best copy. The only copy. The most expensive copy… I want the earliest copy on record. I want the copy that is rarer than anyone had previously dreamed of. I want the copy that dreams.”

Prince’s copy dreams of an original—an original author, an original conception of an idea. It dreams of a possession that can never be attained. Yet elusiveness only inflames desire. For Prince, this may even necessitate copies remade by his own hand, appropriating authorship (the originary act of creation) itself.

Such is the case with his infamous reproduction of the first edition of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, indistinguishable from the 1951 original in every respect except that Prince has replaced Salinger’s name on the cover with his own and added a disclaimer on the colophon page stating: “This is an artwork by Richard Prince. Any similarity to a book is coincidental and not intended by the artist. ©Richard Prince.” In 2011, Prince sold his pirated copies on Fifth Avenue in New York across the street from The Metropolitan Museum of Art for US$40 each (unsigned). By contrast, copies signed by Prince were priced to match the market value of a first edition copy signed by Salinger (in the region of $75,000). An inscribed copy would cost one upwards of $200,000+.

It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It is unlikely that Salinger—or his estate—would think so. Nevertheless, Prince is nothing if not sincere in his appropriation practices and has gone to great lengths to defend such methods in court, as in the Canal Zone “Yes Rasta”case (2011-2014), the New Portraits Instagram claims (2014), and the Davis Morris (photographer of Sid Vicious) lawsuit (2016), to name a few of the more prominent legal cases (google them!). Legally, Prince often comes out on top when championing his right to “fair use” of others’ work and images. But regardless of the outcome of such cases, it is in the performative contestation of cultural value systems that the concepts behind Prince’s artworks are tested and become tangible, win or lose.

In his role as provocateur, Prince forces us to question where we—as individuals, as a society—draw our proverbial lines in the sand. For Prince, it appears to be the drawing of a line that is intriguing, not necessarily the placement or longevity of it. His entire oeuvre mines the contradictions of shared culture, persistently upending the boundaries between private ownership and public heritage, capitalist interest and democratic access, authorship rights and freedom of expression. His is a practice predicated on perpetual interrogation. And while Prince’s book collecting reflects this general modus operandi, it is also, perhaps, where he becomes most visible to us as an individual, for all collections betray something unique about the collector’s personal underlying desire—for answers, for truth, for perpetuity, and that ever-elusive copy that dreams.

Recently, David shared a page from Prince’s essay Decorating My Walls from 1980. In it, Prince hints at the regenerative ability of the re-collected object. Reflecting on his decision to hang a Steve McQueen poster in a room where he is staying, Prince recalls the first ever McQueen poster he put up in 1964 when he was a young man still living with his parents. Years later, the act of re-hanging the poster recalls for Prince his former (distant) self, serving in the present as a dual act of rejuvenation and estrangement.

Prince writes:

“Rather than recovering, I’m being renewed through defamiliarization. I want to name the unnameable and hear it named. I want to see myself as a personality instead of a person. I want to see personality as an inexhaustible mystery of the signified from the mundane closed off simulacrum of the world sign. Sure It’s complicated, but anything to keep back the heavy hand of immanence. Sure it’s only a poster, but anything to keep from being sucked up in a tornado, a void where after you come down, you have to decide all over again which is which, what is what, and who is who.”

Here, the re-placement of the familiar thing in a fresh setting recasts the self—and the world—anew. It is akin to re-reading a book you haven’t picked up for several years. The story, simultaneously familiar and foreign, affords a novel glimpse of the self (past and present) through the lens of the narrative object—a trick of perspective in which text and reader are at once the same, but crucially different. A reader never reads the same book twice. A collector never collects the same object.

As for how this all ends, Prince reflects:

“I think the end point will come when the catalogue is done. I’ll design it and it’ll be an artist’s book. Probably three volumes. I’ll be able to enjoy the collection sitting down on a chair in my place.” [Richard Prince interviewed by Hari Kunzru, in The Telegraph, July 14, 2008]

But don’t believe him.

For the artist-collector, the collection will always be incomplete. There will forever be one more book, just out of reach, with his name on it.


David Moos' essay "Reading Joan Mitchell" was published in Issue no 1 (Autumn 2018) of art + reading.

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