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Often In Error, Never In Doubt: On Making Mistakes

My mother often says about me, whenever I make a mistake: “Often in error, never in doubt.” And she’s right. Like some blundering, clueless military officer straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan, when I make an error I usually do so with the utmost confidence (“PRECISELY!”).

I’ve been thinking about mistakes lately. As I mentioned previously (and as briefly as possible), Michael Stillman at Americana Exchange in his review of my catalogue five, pointed out an error in one of my descriptions for all the (admittedly tiny bookselling) world to see. Here he is calling me on my bullshit:

Item 70 is a copy of Gerard Malanga’s Cristinas World Im(media)cy Poemworks, published in 1970. Malanga is a poet, photographer, and filmmaker who worked with Andy Warhol in the 1960s. This book of poems comes with a long inscription from the author. He notes that it was written near Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, home to painter Andrew Wyeth. This partly explains the book’s title, similar to that of Wyeth’s most famous painting, though he left the “h” out of Christina. Malanga writes that Cristina was intimate with the Wyeth children, and “Cristina is very much her own person – singular, heady, beautiful. She turns 24 this month.” I am a bit perplexed by this one. Christina Olson, the subject of Wyeth’s painting, was unable to walk, and consequently crawled through the fields surrounding her Maine home, explaining the painting. However, she would have been 77 years old at the time of Malanga’s letter had she not died a few years earlier. Perhaps there was another Cristina associated with Wyeth, or he is simply referring to the painting, then 22 not 24 years old.

Stillman was kind enough to stop there, leaving the impression that it was Malanga who made the error. Unfortunately, if the poet made a mistake, he was not alone. Here is the relevant portion of my catalogue description, which Stillman did not quote:

Collection of poems written to/about the woman who posed for Wyeth’s most enduring painting. She and Malanga were intimate at the time.

PRECISELY!

And while I can appreciate the black humor of inadvertently suggesting necrophilic tendencies on Malanga’s part, I was baffled after reading the review how I made so obvious an error. I’m not exactly a fan of Wyeth, but I thought I was somewhat knowledgeable about the artist and the Wyeth family, at least enough not to miscalculate by decades. I’ve handled many books with the eldest Wyeth’s illustrations, and many others by or about one or another of the exceptionally artistic Wyeth clan. My college roommate was even from Chadds Ford, PA where the family lived. I often visited in the summer. My friend would point out the infamous Helga at the pharmacy. We’d go to the Wyeth Museum.

So where did I go wrong? Well, first, the dealer I bought the piece from, while not making the claims that I did, had written their description in such a way that I inferred it when I read their catalogue. Similarly, Malanga’s wording implies, if not read closely, a larger connection to the painting than exists.

So my mistakes were based on faulty assumptions and superficial readings. The more interesting question is why. And when I consider this question, I have two answers. The first is that I thought of myself as someone who knows a reasonable amount about Wyeth. So though I got timelines confused, the story I created fit together so well that I didn’t think to question it or investigate it further. The second, and more troubling reason, is that the story made the inscription that much more interesting. In other words, if I’m honest, I wanted what I wrote to be true.

And what’s toughest for me about realizing this is that the two qualities dealers need to be good at this profession – knowledge and imagination – are exactly what got me into trouble. I think it’s clear that rare book dealers succeed or fail based on their knowledge. But what is less understood is what a role imagination and creativity play as well. A skilled dealer makes connections where others have not, placing materials in new contexts, envisioning new and different markets. With Cristinas World I was making what I thought was a connection others had missed. I thought I was teasing out a story. I was wrong.

Spend any amount of time with book dealers and they will be happy to tell you stories about their great finds and regale you with the details of their most interesting stock. I certainly do this. But for the next several posts on Biblioblography I’d like to write about the other side of being a bookseller: the mistakes, blunders, and errors, my own as well as those from other dealers I’ve encountered.

Because a dealer who’s not making errors is one who’s not trying new things. But a dealer who can’t admit them is one to avoid.

One Comment

  1. Cynthia Gibson wrote:

    Very nice, Brian. Thanks.

    Tuesday, July 12, 2011 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

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