018: Confessions of a Literary Archaeologist by Carlton Lake

by Gerard

018.20976431:  Lake, Carlton. Confessions of a Literary Archaeologist. New York: New Directions, 1990. 182 pp. ISBN 0-8112-1130-4.

Dewey Construction:

  • 000: General works
  • 010: Bibliography
  • 018: Catalogs arranged by author, main entry, date, or register number
  • 018.2: Classified catalogs of private and family libraries
  • +0976431: City of Austin, Texas, United States

Carlton Lake, after earning his BA from Boston College and an MA from Columbia, started collecting books, letters, and other works by modern French writers and artists. He lived in Paris from 1950 to 1975, learning the business of the local book dealers and immersing himself in the culture of post-war Europe. When he moved back to the US to become the curator of the French collection at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Collection at UT-Austin, he had amassed a collection of over 200,000 documents and 1,000 works of art. In his Confessions of a Literary Archaeologist, he relays a few stories from his Paris heyday.

Lake’s journey through documents of great writers and artists allows the reader to get a sense of how book and manuscript dealers come upon their finds and release them to other buyers. The characters are eccentric and jovial, with always some scheme lurking in the wings. A great deal of text talks about the private lives and correspondence of the writers themselves, and you get a near-palpable sense of how these people lived.

Overall, the book was very informative and even a bit witty at times. But there was a overwhelming sense of elitism throughout the text. He tends to use his years among the literati as a way to measure himself against his colleagues, and there are constant mentions of terrific spending binges, where he acquire the entirety of another person collection. Most of the time, it didn’t bother me (it’s his money), but every once in a while it got to be a bit much. I wouldn’t stop you from reading it, but I wouldn’t recommend it fanatically either.