Double Takes at First Edition/Second Thoughts

Tonight at Christie’s New York, 75 original works will go up for auction. This wouldn’t be unusual, except tonight’s lots are objects not typically regarded as fine art. Rather than painted works or sculptures, bidders will compete for first editions of acclaimed printed books that date from 1956 to 2013 and whose respective authors flipped through each copy page by page and wrote, scribbled, and in some cases doodled in the margins–any modification was fair game. Aptly named “First Editions/Second Thoughts,” the project at large is a fundraising initiative for the literary association PEN American Center and hosted by the auction house. Proceeds will go to the organization, which fights to preserve writers’ freedom of expression around the world.

In the spring of 2013, PEN began approaching dozens of writers and a few artists. The finalized list includes an array of 20th century icons like Philip Roth, Jay McInerney, and Toni Morrison, as well as freshly anointed literary notables like Gillian Flynn, Khaled Hosseini, and Junot Díaz. Visual artists, responsible for the handful of non-narrative books in the mix, are of equal caliber, ranging from Shirin Neshat to Lawrence Weiner, Richard Serra, Kiki Smith, and Marina AbramoviÄ?.

“What’s striking is that many of these writers have not revisited the work in decades. Even the writers who finished the books more recently often had not really cracked them open or looked at them,” says PEN American Center’s Executive Director Suzanne Nossel, who spearheaded the project. She continued to explain that certain participants took more convincing than others. “Some couldn’t stomach the idea of returning to past work. But with most, if they approached the project with trepidation, butterflies, or even revulsion in some cases, they got over that.”

Irish writer Colm Tóibín annotated his novel Brooklyn, which was released in 2009, for the auction. “It was not hard, but the question was how much to put in,” he says. “One annotation would remind you of something else, some other source, or discarded idea, or detail not used, or emotion. It led me to realize how much goes into the making of a page, how many decisions, how many hidden, strange beginnings.” 

“While you’re writing a book there’s endless possibilities…When you finish, all the possibilities save one evaporate,” Nossel added while explaining how other writers had experiences similar to Tóibín’s.

The 75 books have been on display at Christie’s for the last two weeks, where viewers could look through them with the assistance of a curator. At the auction, several participating writers will be present–among them, McInerney, Malcolm Gladwell, and Edmund White–to see the results of their efforts shipped off to the highest bidder. “It will be full of suspense,” says Nossel. “What could be more precious than having a new work of art by your favorite author–written almost for just you?”