Monday, June 29, 2020

“The Tools of My Trade”: The Annotated Books in Jack London’s Library by David Mike Hamilton

A mind map of London’s marginalia
Jack London was not only a prolific author but also a voracious reader. As indicated by the title of David Mike Hamilton’s 1986 book “The Tools of My Trade,” London saw books as the raw materials and instruments by which he plied his literary craft. In this in-depth study of London’s personal library, Hamilton charts the lengths to which other writers’ books influenced London’s intellectual development and served as source material for his own writings.

The book opens with an excellent 47 page essay in which Hamilton traces London’s life as a reader. Based on books that London discussed in his letters, mentioned in his published writings, or noted in unpublished manuscripts, Hamilton is able to piece together in great detail which books London read at various points in his career and how those books influenced his thought and writings. Other London studies often touch upon major names like Darwin, Spencer, Nietzsche, and Jung, but Hamilton delves far deeper into London’s pool of influences.

At the time of London’s death, his library consisted of about 15,000 volumes. Of that impressive total, Hamilton has compiled a bibliography of almost 600 books, pamphlets, and periodicals that contain handwritten notes by London, inscriptions from authors and friends, and/or enclosures such as letters, articles, or news clippings. Depending on the degree to which London marked up his copy, Hamilton either summarizes London’s notations or quotes them verbatim. Because London died in 1916, all the books mentioned are in the public domain, and one can find digitzed editions of over 90 percent of these works at the HathiTrust website.

As one might expect, frequent topics in London’s library include socialism, Hawaii, sailing and navigation, Alaska and the Yukon, poetry, and evolution. The high quantity of titles in psychoanalysis and sexuality is more surprising. The contents of London’s library do not entirely reflect well on him, since the list does include books on white supremacy. Beyond his pet interests, browsing London’s shelves allows the reader to experience the breadth and depth of knowledge enjoyed by an early-twentieth-century American intellectual. It is always fascinating to browse through the legacy libraries of historic personages. Rarely, however, does a bibliographer make the kind of concrete connections that Hamilton establishes between the books an author has read and those he has written. Through exhaustive research of London’s library, correspondence, and literary oeuvre, Hamilton is able to draw these linkages, providing London aficionados with an exceptionally clear vision of the author’s intellectual development and working methods.

The only problem with “The Tools of My Trade” is that it contains an inordinate number of typographical errors—an unforgiveable fault in the detail-oriented discipline of bibliography. While the author is very good about noting London’s spelling errors with [sic], the proofreading of Hamilton’s own text was not very thorough. What’s worse is that many of the errors occur in the titles of books and the names of authors. When compared to the actual title pages of the volumes he’s citing, Hamilton has authors listed as Grieg instead of Greig, Kish instead of Kisch, Mathe instead of Mather, Nedig instead of Neidig, Pennoll instead of Pennell, and those are just the few that I bothered to jot down. Errors occasionally occur in titles as well, such as “Human” instead of “Humane,” and also in Hamilton’s descriptive copy. One work described as a “small pamphlet” is listed as having 614 pages. Such inaccuracies make it difficult for researchers to track down and utilize the works that Hamilton has so thoroughly researched and compiled.

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