“The idea of buying and selling precious books touched the hibernating Ellis Island Jewish peddler in me.”

— Glenn Horowitz '77

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In the Hands of Glenn Horowitz ’77, Dusty Documents Become Literary Gold

In the Information Age, where knowledge is currency, Glenn Horowitz may be the man at the center of one of our most zeitgeist-y businesses.

Horowitz owns Glenn Horowitz Booksellers, rare bookshops in Manhattan and Easthampton, NY, but he is perhaps best known for his work representing the personal archives of our culture’s most revered and most notorious. Recently, Horowitz has been handling the papers of Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) and that of Paul Fitzgerald, the public defender who represented Charles Manson. But lest you think the archival world is all about the tabloids, bear in mind that Horowitz has also overseen the transfer of Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate material to The University of Texas at Austin; brokered the sale of Norman Mailer’s and John Updike’s archives; and himself owns the letter Leonard Woolf wrote to Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf’s friend and lover, on the day the novelist took her life.

Talking with Horowitz is, to use appropriate terms, Faulknerian—his words divagate in a stream of consciousness, touching lightly on various topics: the ethics of representing material about someone like Manson (given the cultural flashpoint the killer represents, he sees the papers as having historic value); observations on the alpha competitiveness his business invites (who will “get” the libraries of the once and future eminences grises?); and how the archival world has ushered in a Wall Street- or Vegas-like speculation on genius (how does one rank collecting Alice Walker next to Ian McEwan next to J.M. Coetzee?).

Horowitz likes discussing all of this; that his work generates philosophical questions is part of the fun. For instance, does exposing the process of writers and their works—say, the nine versions of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, an author whose archive Horowitz recently sold—enhance artistic genius or demystify and thereby diminish it?

The Road has an oracular voice, doesn’t it? But when you see how diligently McCarthy works to achieve that…I think the arduousness of the task only elevates him higher.”

An intellectual life generated by examining intellectual lives is no meta activity for Horowitz but a bracing avocation and one that braids culture, the arts, creativity, and history: both of the times we live in and those lived already. While he doesn’t offer an opinion on what pushes someone to collect books, manuscripts, and letters, as opposed to stamps or coins, his own path provides a glimpse.

An aspiring writer who studied under Bernard Malamud at Bennington, Horowitz managed to write 600 pages of fiction during his college years. “A novel and a half,” he laughs. “When I left Bennington in 1977, I considered how I was going to live my post-collegiate life. My choices were not abundant. I could do grad work, go to a professional school, or become a writer. I liked the last one, but it became clear to me that the world wasn’t waiting on my work.”

Instead, Horowitz experienced what some might now see as an occupational hazard: He saw the virtue of the past through contemporary eyes.

“My grandfather was a Jewish immigrant who came to this country and sold things using a pushcart. I thought he was the greatest thing since Swiss cheese and I was attracted to the mercantile life. The idea of buying and selling precious books touched the hibernating Ellis Island Jewish peddler in me. It united the two sides of my personality, which at 21 needed reconciling.”

After leaving Bennington, Horowitz worked in the rare book department at the Strand Bookstore in New York. In 1979, at 24, he opened his own business, and with a loan from his father, bought and resold his first collection of books, a library accumulated by a New Jersey lawyer that featured first editions by Hemingway and Steinbeck. In the years since, he has become the go-to guru in this world of documents, representing material from W.S. Merwin, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Vladimir Nabokov, even his old teacher, Malamud. To whom does he sell? University libraries, institutions, and anyone who has a passion for it, including such recognizable names as Steve Forbes (books about Winston Churchill) and Martha Stewart (books on gardening).

Who bears collecting next? Although Horowitz calls his approach “promiscuous,” arguing that many things have potential value, his choices reveal a selectivity. In addition to Manson and Kaczynski, he is currently working on “an extensive negotiation with one of the major American research libraries” for the archive of Timothy Leary. Last year, he struck a deal for the papers of the late David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest).

No matter what boxes come his way or where he guides them, Horowitz’s work ensures that our collective culture remains literally in good hands.

Haven't you sometimes seen a cloud that looked like a centaur? Or a leopard, perhaps? Or a wolf? Or a bull?

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