I think I’m going to have to make over a section of the collectibles table for Memorial Books this year. We get them all the time, of course, but never by the boxful before now. A memorial book, as I suppose you could guess, is a book published in honor of someone who has died. Over the years, we’ve seen a variety of these, from the elegantly calligraphed tributes customary in one part of town to the occasional mimeographed memorial used by those of lesser means.
The most common type, at least around this Book Fair, is the political memorial book. That’s what you get when a person who now or once upon a time held an important government office has died, and his colleagues stand up in Congress and deliver a few thousand well-chosen words about how they will miss their esteemed colleague. They do this whether they were planning to campaign for his opponent in fall, or still hate him for getting that hamster-leash ordinance passed. The speeches are then printed up in a slim volume with the name of the deceased in gold on the cover. The variations on this which just came to us cover well over a hundred years, with tributes to the assassinated President McKinley, the assassinated President Kennedy (this also includes letters of condolence from foreign heads of state, and must weigh about five pounds), Adlai Stevenson II, Adlai Stevenson III, Henry Horner, and many other Illinois politicos.
Tributes to non-politicians tend to be a bit more free-form, including more in the way of essays and fewer speeches; they also tend to be a little heavier on pictures. R.R. Donnelley is one of the bigger names in this part of the collection (his company eventually printed all the Yellow Pages in America, along with all the issues of Life, Sports Illustrated, Holiday, etc. etc.: The plant made it into the Guinness Book of Records.) On the international scene, we have the memorial book of Wilfred Israel, whose World War II adventures resulted in essays being written for his book by, among others, Chaim Weizmann, Martin Buber, and Albert Einstein.
Another kind of memorial book which we see quite often is reserved for those who have committed poetude. (Gentle inquiries have been made about my use of this word, and I have suggested poetitude as a substitute. As I recall from my grade school writing courses, adding a syllable can make all the difference.) What the family does, when the loved one passes, is collect all, or at least the best, of their verses and present them in a book with a couple of memorial essays and a picture of the deceased. This is a pretty rough way to get your poems published, especially as there is no chance for you to write a sequel. The people thus honored are almost always grandmothers or servicemen, though occasionally a small child with a gift for poetry will slip in. Claude Seymour Reebie, whose family is not unknown in Chicago and environs, is one of the servicemen in this part of the collection.
It vaguely makes me wonder what sort of memorial book people would publish for me. I think I prefer my poetry to any politician’s speeches, but I guess I won’t be reading it anyhow. Tell you what: surprise me.
Because we never know what’s going to be picked out to memorialize us when we go. For example, this collection of memorial books is coming down to us from the estate of Helen Sclair: the Cemetery Lady. I expected these would eventually arrive at to the Book fair, since the Newberry already had a large collection of these kinds of books when her collection arrived. These are the duplicates. But I may have to consult Guinness or Wikipedia or some other fountain of information to clear up the question this raises.
Is ours the first Book Fair to have a Memorial Display of Memorial Books?