First Editions / Second Thoughts Defending Writers: PEN and Christie’s Raise One Million Dollars to Support Freedom of Expression

formerly published in Wild River Review

by Kimberly Nagy

“A thing is mighty big when time and distance cannot shrink it.” — Zora Neale Hurston

Inside the covers of any truly great book is indeed a big world. A powerfully-private landscape in which readers breathe, taste and feel, “the divine details,” (to use Nabokov’s classic line) an author researched, caressed, laughed at or cursed; and through tenacity, craft and usually, support, orchestrated into literature.

To me, these private worlds, these leaps of consciousness in space and time are jewels, light-filled treasures that have the power to endure well beyond our temporary cravings and epiphanies.

It’s no wonder I’m thinking about jewels as I walk down cold-windy streets in pre-Christmas Manhattan with its elegantly decorated storefronts, past the smell of roasting chestnuts and a line of street vendors. At the epicenter of commerce, between 49th and 6th across the street from Rockefeller Center, I enter Christie’s Auction House where the “Princie Diamond” (a cushion-cut 34 carat diamond) brought in $39.3 million, and where bidders once rushed for a piece of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewelry collection.

As soon as I take out a card to introduce myself to security, I spot my guide, Sarah Edkins, PEN American Center’s Communications Manager. Plush carpeted floors and a flight of wide stairs lead us to the entrance of an exhibition room and the reason I came: First Editions/ Second Thoughts.

This is not just any collection of first editions. First Editions/ Second Thoughts (FEST), hosted by Christie’s Auction House on December 2nd, was conceived to raise funds for PEN American Center, the world-renowned organization that defends imprisoned writers and celebrates literature. The second initiative of its kind, the original First Editions/ Second Thoughts launched in 2013 to benefit English PEN through rare book sales at Southebys and raised $690K, including a healthy $230K sale of Harry Potter.

“Christie’s is proud to serve as host of this historic auction of unique literary treasures and to give so many book lovers a chance to view and bid on these authors’ and artists’ thoughtful reflections on their own work,” said Steve Murphy, CEO of Christie’s about the December 2, 2014 First Editions/ Second Thoughts. “We are especially pleased to help PEN American Center raise money to continue its mission of defending free expression and fostering literary pursuits.”

Brainchild of Belinda Kitchin, auction curator, the US FEST showcases sixty-one writers (including authors like Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Rita Dove, Paul Muldoon, Phillip Roth, Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, etc.) and fourteen world-renowned artists curated by the Sean Kelly Gallery. Rare books expert, Rick Gekoski, Kitchin’s husband, spearheaded the original First Editions/ Second Thoughts.

And, here’s where the private lives of first editions gets juicier. Kitchin and Gekoski asked each of the authors and artists to revisit and annotate first editions of their most influential works. Annotate, you ask?

“They weren’t writing their book, they were writing their thoughts about their book. So cataloging it was challenging but fun,” said Patrick McGrath, Books Specialist at Christie’s, who I spoke with in a phone interview.

“I was often asked by writers what does annotation mean,” explained Gekoski in a video about FEST, “and the answer is it means whatever you want it to mean.”

For some authors, such as Louise Erdrich, annotating meant weaving a colorful braid of flowers along with Western comics, matchbooks and private notes through all of the pages of her first novel, Love Medicine, about three generations of a Chippewa Indian family, and which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Rita Dove, former poet laureate, at first hesitant to “deface” the first edition of her first chapbook, Ten Poems, was surprised that she eventually wrote in all ten of them. On the title page of her Ten Poems, she chuckles at her own title: “Gee, how original.”

Colum McCann included an apt Kurt Vonnegut quote, “We should be continually jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down…” and a picturesque doodle for the reader who bid highest for, Let the Great World Spin, which won the National Book Award.

Barbara Kingsolver, bestselling author led the reader back to her first sentence in The Poisonwood Bible, her novel that depicted missionary-fueled imperialism and its troubled legacy in the Congo.

“Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.”

Kingsolver writes: “The first sentence of a novel should make a promise that the book will keep. The ruin that Europe and the US brought on the Congo. The difficulty of inheriting this history — as captive witness to our nation’s past. The impossible search for redemption. The temptation of denial.”

PEN International was the first worldwide association to point out “that freedom of expression and literature are inseparable,” an ideological connection that is still championed in their charter. PEN American Center is the largest of the 140 centers of PEN International.

“We’re really the only organization that both celebrates and defends freedom of expression,” Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN American Center, explained in an interview with WBUR. “We have a case list of over 900 writers all over the world who are jailed, persecuted, threatened, for what they write and for the expression of their views.”

In the exhibit room, Brad Thiele, Art Handler of Books of Manuscripts, provides me with direct access to the pristine glass cases displaying famous titles such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Joyce Carol Oates’ Them. A team of two photographers, who’ve been working long hours sit on the floor.

When Edkins asks me which book I most want to see, I don’t hesitate. I was moved by Angela Davis’s If They Come in the Morning which seemed emblematic of PEN’s mission to not only defend imprisoned writers but remind an often-alienated group in the global community about the vital necessity of collaboration. In her introductory annotation, Davis characteristically reminded her would-be bidder that she was not the only author of the book, but that she wrote it with many others.

“I’m so glad you asked about this book,” said Edkins, who, encyclopedic in her knowledge of each title points to Angela Davis’s book safe behind a shining glass case. It’s almost a microcosm of our work, right here.”

Davis’s If they Come in the Morning speaks to PEN American Center’s work with prisoners because the money raised in the PEN/ Christie’s Auction will go toward helping support writers in prison and in providing aid to their families. In my phone interview with Pat McGrath, Book Specialist at Christies, who catalogued all of the 61 titles, he adds, “Two titles that really moved me powerfully were the Angela Davis book and the John Edgar Wideman (Brothers and Keepers), both nonfiction, and both of whom were writing about the ongoing problem of mass incarceration — and the terrible inequality in the criminal justice system.”

In 1970, the young Davis, a UCLA philosophy professor and activist in the Black Panthers and Communist Party, was fired for her political beliefs and speeches. That same year, Davis was charged with connection to a prison outbreak at Marin County Courthouse. A warrant for Davis’s arrest went out for three counts of murder, kidnapping and criminal conspiracy — charges that were punishable by death. Davis’s name reached the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List and she was arrested and jailed in October of 1970.

‘I stand before this court,” Angela famously stated, “as a target of a political frame-up… I declare publicly before the court, before the people of this country, that I am innocent of all charges which have been leveled against me by the State of California.”

During her imprisonment (Davis was fully acquitted in 1972.) she not only dominated the headlines, and inspired songs from Yoko Ono and John Lennon as well as the Rolling Stones, but collaborated to write about her trial in the book, If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance, a collection of essays edited by Davis and Betty Aptheker that included essays from other prisoners, their lawyers and letters of support from famous public figures like Coretta King and James Baldwin.

Earlier in the week, in preparation for my questions about Angela Davis, a YouTube search had pulled me back in time to her 2008 lecture called, “How Does Change Happen?” Davis’s talk, a prescription for progressive change, began with a childhood story. Davis described growing up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, and how she cried when she couldn’t go to an all-white amusement park (or library, etc.) in the the late 1940s. It was Davis’s mother who soothed her.

“I learned how not to cry when my mother explained… racism and segregation to me,” Davis recalled.

“She said, and I’ll never forget it, ‘This is not the way things are supposed to be. This might be the way they are now, but they are not supposed to be this way… And they will not always be this way.’”

“Just as it was once possible to help people imagine a world without slavery… it was important to me personally to learn about as a child, to imagine a world without racial segregation, and later, a world in which women were not assumed to be inferior to men…or a world without xenophobia…,” continues Davis as she advocated for what she named the critical impulse, “the critical habit of imagination coupled with the responsibility to use knowledge in a transformative way… to use knowledge as a way to remake the world so that it is better for all of its inhabitants…”

Imagining a transformed world — or more critically examining the “real” world — is perhaps the most important role of the writer, the group PEN International Center has worked to protect since it was founded by Catharine Amy Dawson-Scott and John Galsworthy in 1921.

Over ninety years later, the organization continues to defend free expression across political barriers. Fundamental to this work is dispelling national, ethnic, and racial tensions in order to promote understanding among all peoples.

“At PEN American Center, our work is focused on helping writers whose work is under threat whether in China or in Ferguson Missouri,” said Nossel, Executive Director for the PEN American Center. “This will help infuse all of our work with new resources, new energy and new inspiration.”