I was looking up something else, as usual, when I ran into an interesting book list. What I WANTED to find out was how much somebody paid at auction for Marilyn Monroe’s copy of The Little Engine That Could. I’m sure it’s somewhere on the Interwebs, but before I got there, I found that some researchers, using interviews as well as the auction catalog of Marilyn’s effects, have come up with a list of 430 books Marilyn had in her personal library.
The website where I found this list was not the one which had researched it. This one was tossing out a challenge to readers: is your personal library as extensive and diverse as hers? The writer was, in effect, striking out at those people who feel anything more complex than The Little Engine That Could would have been a challenge to her reading level.
Uncle Blogsy sees things differently than a lot of people, however. Looking over the list, HIS first reaction was “That sounds like half the estates we get around here.”
See, with a few exceptions (the German translation of Arthur Miller, for example) most of the books are exactly what I would expect to find in the library of a well-read and book-curious Chicagoan of the late 50s and early 60s. Of course James Thurber is there. and Ludwig Bemelmans (not Madeline, but his books for grown-ups.) Literate people with a sense of humor were buying Thurber and Bemelmans at the time. Proust is there, as is Sandburg’s Lincoln. There is an incomplete set of Plutarch’s Lives: what donation is complete without an incomplete set of something? Show biz biographies (only one biography of Marilyn Monroe, though: most people who have one have several), a single issue of Poetry magazine, a single issue of Evergreen Review, three issues of Horizon, Kahlil Gibran, The Little Prince, Dr. Spock…if this collection had come to me from a high rise in Streeterville or an apartment in Hyde Park, absolutely nothing about it would have screamed “Marilyn Monroe” to me. (A few books are inscribed to her which might have tipped me off. Most of them are by authors who are, um, reasonably obscure. Even the book from Ben Hecht, who ghost wrote her autobiography, isn’t signed.)
Did she read them? The blogger makes short work of that question. Have you read every book YOU own? She does not seem to have been one of those people who makes a note in every book she reads as to when she finished it. (Just got in six boxes of those.) In her case, we do have plenty of photographs showing her reading books, or at least looking at them, and there are witnesses who swear she was reading Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man during the filming of Some Like It Hot. (I get lots of copies of Paine, too. Can’t say how many of them have been read.)
One thing that’s missing are the bestselling novels. Harold Robbins is there, but she was thinking of trying out for the film version of that one. No word on whether she had the same ambition for From Russia With Love. Her library tended more toward Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck…just like dozens of other readers of her era whose books wind up here.
What does it tell us, this list of books which could as easily have been compiled in a lawyer’s apartment or housewife’s rec room? That it can be very difficult to tell what a person’s life was just from the books they pass along. (Although in the case of the donor who sent me that copy of The Joy of Sex with corrections in the margins I shall make an exception.)