“The Tools of My Trade”: The Annotated Books in Jack London’s Library.

An impressive compilation of London’s reading and annotations in his library books (now at Huntington Library, Pasadena).

p. 6: Clearly London had not neglected his reading, even aboard the Sophia Sutherland, which took him to the Bering Sea. Charmian London reported that London took great pains on the voyage to improvise a saucer of slush-oil, containing a floating wick and fitted with a shade to serve as a lamp for late-night reading of books such as A Nest of Gentlefolk by Ivan Turgenev. [London’s story, “The Mercy of the Sea,” is about that 1893 voyage.]

p. 8-9: July 15, 1897 Jack London boarded the S.S. Umatilla for the Klondike. He took with him Miner Bruce’s Through the Goldfields to Alaska, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.

Naturally, books were rare commodities in the Klondike goldfields. What few books did make it into the interior were prized possessions eagerly sought by miners trying to wait out the cold winter. One of London’s gold rush comrades, Emil Jensen, remembered the budding author’s Klondike library (“Jack London at Stewart River,” p. 4, HL [Huntington Library]): One unwritten law of the camp was that at night all regular visitors must bring their own candles. With candles worth a dollar and a half each, this rule was nothing more than just. Another thing well understood was that books must be kept no longer than was absolutely necessary. Few of us had brought more than one, although some had brought as many as three. It was from Jack I borrowed my first book. Anywhere else, I would have passed that thing up without a second thought, but in the Yukon, a book was a book and I read it—Darwin’s Origin of Species. I confess I did not like Jack so well that week.

Jensen must have hidden his temporary dislike for London and Darwin, for London persisted in trying to educate him. “Try [Thomas] Huxley” London suggested, but Jensen only shook his head mournfully. “How about [Herbert] Spencer?” “Too serious” was the reply. “‘Well then,’ remarked Jack with finality, ‘here is your last bet;’ saying which he resurrected from among the blankets in his bunk a book and placed it on the table before me. A book of poetry this was—portly and awe-inspiring. ‘You have read every scrap of paper in camp but this,’ he continued, sliding a loving hand gently over the upturned page as though this thing beneath his fingers were the very embodiment of all that is beautiful and joygiving.”

p. 29: description of books in the library of The Snark on which London took a trip around the world in 1907-09 going westward through Hawaii, China, India, New York, and around the Horn: London overwhelmed the boat with books…. [He didn’t finish the voyage but his Snark reading seems fairly well documented.]

Books in London’s library of Arctic interest are few but include:

Mikkelsen, Ejnar. Conquering the Arctic Ice. (Philadelphia, PA: Jacobs, 1910), in which he has marked passages on the treatment of dogs, and one on Herschel Island as “quite a metropolis”.