Gilt By Association

Now, you’ve been told that what you want in an autographed book is an autograph. Just a name. No inscription, no date, no “Best Wishes”. Just the signature. I, as I think I have mentioned, feel this is baloney of a rich and creamy kind. I like a little bit more for my money.  I know the author can spell her name; what else did she have to say? Still, if I have mentioned this twice, that is two more times than there are people who are interested in my opinion on the matter, so let’s move on.

The exception to this rule is the association copy. An association copy is a book with a name or message written in it which is significant to the text or history of the book. If you have a copy of the 1855 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, you have a valuable book. If you have a copy of that book signed by Walt Whitman, you have a really valuable signed book. If you have the copy Walt Whitman sent to Abraham Lincoln (about whom he later wrote “O Captain! My Captain!”), you have an association copy that will have collectors beating a path to your door. (If you have the copy which Bill Clinton gave to Monica Lewinsky, you have an association copy, too. The author doesn’t have to be involved in the story to make the book an association copy.)

Now, the Newberry Library has a number of books which once belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Any book Tom wrote his name in is worth a little something. (He had his own personal way of marking ownership, too, using his initials. But it involves slightly advanced information on how books are put together, and we can save that for another time.)  The Newberry also owns his copy of the account of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, with his notes in the margins (and a note or two from William Clark).  This is an association copy deluxe.

I may have mentioned a copy of the first illustrated edition of The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, which came to me with all the pictures torn out. Oliver Wendell Holmes didn’t especially like the pictures, so when he gave a friend a copy of this edition of his most famous book, he got rid of the illustrations first. The copy we found was inscribed by Holmes (whose autograph isn’t a college-funder) to Richard Henry Dana, Jr., “my old friend and classmate”. Dana, the author of Two Years Before the Mast, makes this not just an inscribed copy but an association copy: the author of one great unread book to the author of another. It’s in the library’s collection now.

Possibly the most unusual association copy is an unautographed CD-Rom I have sitting around. This once belonged to Theodore W. Schultz, winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize for Economics. The CD-Rom was put together as a database on the life of every Nobel Prize winner, and it is now a dozen or more years out of date. T.W. Schultz has not written his name in it and it is, alas, not addressed to him. So what makes it more valuable than any other CD-Rom of Nobel prize data? Well, it was sent to him for proofreading, so he could make sure the data on his life was accurate. And still enclosed in the case is the letter saying so, beginning “Dear Nobel laureate”. This marks the CD-Rom as one of a very small number sent to members of a very select group.

It’s this brush with history which makes the association copy worth its price. Let’s face it, owning that CD-Rom is the closest you or I will ever come to getting a serious letter that opens with “Dear Nobel laureate”. (This statement void if read at the University of Chicago.)

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