Life among the bibliophiles

ON June 7, Saul Bellow's manuscript of his 1970 novel, ``Mr. Sammler's Planet,'' will be auctioned off at Sotheby's, setting a new fashion for what to do with those old notebooks and typed drafts in the top of the closet at spring cleaning time. No living author has thought to dispose of his workshop materials by auction before. The guess is that the Bellows papers will fetch between $60,000 and $100,000, which works out to about the price Sotheby's averaged last month for half a dozen cookie jars from Andy Warhol's estate.

Oh well. It is half a century or so since the cookie jars were manufactured, and an author's market value also rises in time. On the same day Bellow's manuscript and notebooks land on the auction block, Sotheby's will be selling a rare edition of Edgar Allan Poe's first book of poetry, ``Tamerlane'' (1827), for a predicted $300,000.

Next to a touch of antiquity, give an auctioneer a touch of notoriety. Henry Miller's once-banned novel ``Tropic of Cancer'' set the record for 20th-century published fiction when Sotheby's pushed the bids up to $165,000 in 1986.

When it comes to measuring true value, auctions - especially literary auctions - are as wildly erratic as guessing games about the number of jellybeans in a jar. Who could have imagined, for instance, that Franz Kafka's letters to the fianc'ee he never married would bring $605,000?

There is a wonderful madness here, mocking the mentality that would put cookie jars and Van Gogh paintings and manuscripts in the marketplace to arrive at an assessment of their worth.

Books as objects - as artifacts of pen, pencil, or type impressed on paper - are really worth very little. Unless bound in leather or tooled in gold, a book in itself has no decorative value, like a Van Gogh, and no utilitarian value, like a cookie jar.

A book is worth no more than any doorstop as long as the cover remains closed. And once the cover has been opened and the contents read, they become a part of the life and mind and character of the reader, and the book returns to its state as an inert object of paper and glue, no more to be prized for its material components than a human being is to be valued for the chemical content the body is reducible to.

Yet the collective existence of the book - the perpetuity of the printed word as the repository of culture - is a matter on which civilization seems to depend. A reader is chilled in some atavistic corner of the heart at reports that 3 to 10 million books now existing as sole copies will crumble in the next 20 years into illegibility on the shelves of American libraries. Unless the acid is removed from paper and bindings or the pages are recorded on microfilm, a body of knowledge and experience will simply disappear into the void, leaving a black hole that amounts to far more than the sum of disintegrated atoms.

Books - even unread books - are the family albums of the human race, and their loss is felt even by those who do not read very passionately. Who did not grieve, shaken by the news that nearly half a million books had been turned to ashes by a fire in the library of Leningrad? - an accident as disturbing in its own way as Chernobyl. ``A holocaust of words,'' one commentator melodramatically called it, yet we know what he means. The burning of books, even inadvertently, seems an act associated with barbarism. Books constitute the best recorded experience of the race, and their destruction, from whatever cause, comes close to profaning the lives of the eyewitnesses and all the generations for whom they bore witness as an act of faith in the future.

The book, it is speculated, now represents an outmoded form of ``cultural packaging,'' and those who cling to books with love (and nervousness) are seen to be guilty of an unnecessarily anxious sentimentality. Maybe. But on the other hand, those who do not feel the book - the embodiment of the word - as a sacred object may be forgetting what sacred means, a subject not a few books dedicate themselves to.

To turn books into ``collectibles,'' as an auction does, is to express reverence of a sort for literature, since the American way is to praise (and insult) with money. But this is literature as a dead object.

Bellow is considering using the proceeds of his auction to endow a university chair for a writer. That would be a gesture of more than reverence, saying in every sense: The book lives.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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