End of a chapter for Aspen writer Clifford Irving’s accumulation of books
July 22, 2011
ASPEN – Among the books that will not be offered for sale Saturday at Clifford Irving’s yard sale at his home on the east side of Aspen: some 500 books about the French Impressionists; Peter Matthiessen’s “At Play in the Fields of the Lord”; a fabulously tattered copy of the Joseph Conrad collection “Tales of Land and Sea.”
The collection of books on the French Impressionists are still in active use. Irving is in the midst of writing a pair of novels – one about Monet, the other about Manet and his affair with fellow artist Berthe Morisot – and the Impressionism books are vital to his research. Irving wants to re-read “At Play in the Fields of the Lord,” about a group of American missionaries and their encounter with a South American tribe, though there may be further meaning to hanging onto this one: Matthiessen, like Irving, is a New York City-born octogenarian author who has had his chapter with legal drama. (Irving, in the early ’70s, sold a bogus biography of Howard Hughes, and spent more than a year in prison. Matthiessen was sued for libel for his 1983 book “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,” accused of presenting a one-sided account of contemporary life on a South Dakota Indian reservation. The suit was dismissed, but held up publication of a paperback edition.)
The Conrad book appears to be simply too well-loved for Irving to let go of. The copy is spine-less, in the literal sense; the title is hand-written where the spine once existed.
Which leaves a thousand pieces – or maybe two thousand; Irving, who doesn’t consider himself a collector, but rather “an accumulator,” hasn’t bothered to count or keep track. The books that are being sold are in no order; Raymond Chandler short stories and art books and collections of writings about Jewish life in America are stacked together in the garage that Irving was about to start emptying for today’s sale. (The sale is from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. at 95 Westview, in the Knollwood development just east of Aspen. For info, email firstname.lastname@example.org.) Among the treasures are first editions of several Hemingway novels (all without covers); the gorgeous, two-volume documentary novel “Henri Matisse” (in fine shape and selling for $45); the diminutive Yale Shakespeare complete works; and a six-volume, first U.S. edition of Winston Churchill’s “The Second World War.” (Unable to find any copies for sale on the Internet, Irving was puzzled as to how much to charge for the set.)
Irving doesn’t exactly want to get rid of his books. “Once I buy them, I don’t want to get rid of them. I love my books,” he said. In addition to buying them, he has written 18 – thrillers; a biography of the art forger Elmyr de Hory; “The Hoax,” about the Hughes incident, which was turned into a film starring Richard Gere as Irving. But he also doesn’t want to keep paying for storage, and he doesn’t want to anger his wife, Julie, who is starting a silk-importing business and needs the room that has been rendered unusable by books.
Going through the accumulation hasn’t been pleasant or easy. “I go through them and say, ‘Oh wow, why would I get rid of that? At some point I’m going to want it,'” Irving said over a chocolate ice cream sandwich. “But I can’t have that attitude. I have to be ruthless.”
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Irving reflected for a moment on why he loved books. “What I know comes from books and the earth,” said Irving, whose other passions include his flower garden and hardware stores. “I don’t learn a lot from people. Yes, people write books, but I can study the books and base my thoughts on something other than emotion.”