If You Weren't There, You Missed It

We had a nice time at the book launch and symposium on Association Copies, those books which once belonged to somebody else. Numerous speakers testified that this “someone else” doesn’t HAVE to have been somebody famous. Anonymous scribbles can be as interesting or illuminating.

I can testify to that. I scanned into my personal database an elaborate ink drawing done by no one in particular in the 1880s. The book was meant as a Chrtistmas present, and the giver, obviously a native of Chicago, draw a picture on the front free endpaper of a mournful Santa Claus holding an umbrella as rain pours all around him. “Merry Christmas, anyway!” he wrote.

We’ve had some notable association copies of books, as I have blogged at you before: a copy of Autocrat of the Breakfast Table inscribed by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. to Richard henry Dana Jr., a book by H.G. Wells annotated by a young Orson Welles, a little tome inscribed to a noted philosopher by an author who simply signed “Nobody”, and that plaintive little book in which it’s author recorded how he ran across his brainchild: “To be remaindered! And in Paris! And in Spring!”

Among the treasures I am offering online are a book inscribed by a noted poet to his grandmother, and another that was a gift from an even more noted poet to a noted Chicago journalist. This week, I’m trying to deal with a book inscribed by a Chicago historian to his mother, and one of those retirement books, the kind everyone in the office inscribes to the person who’s leaving. This retiree was a psychoanalyst, and in the corner someone has written “How Freudian of you to leave this behind after the party!”

We had a book that was in Eugene Field’s library, according to a note from his son. This is exciting for two reasons: it was a nice book, and Eugene Field’s son is known to have gone around buying secondhand books by the bushel and then pasting this note in them to resell. A famous fake association copy, see, can become an association copy in its own right.

Right now I have a Bible to consider. There are two kinds of Bibles that come in: family Bibles, which often have those lists of marriages, births, and deaths in the middle (I send those up to the genealogy department.) and personal Bibles, which one person carried around or had within reach. The personal Bible I’m dealing with at the moment belonged to someone who has his name on a building in Chicago. Somebody out there must want it.

Several people at the symposium spoke out about the scribbling children do in their books: one speculated on exactly where the dividing line between history and nuisance comes:a schoolchild’s scribbles in 1600 is obviously one and a schoolchild’s use of a highlighter in 2011 is the other. At what age do those pictures of the teacher with donkey’s ears become collectible? The best children’s scribble I ever dealt with was a signature from a little girl who was given a Honey Bunch book by a local Sunday School for Christmas. (Honey Bunch was a series heroine for kids who were not old enough yet for the thrills of the Bobbsey Twins books.) They wrote her name in the presentation, and she copied it, using nearly half a page in large scrawly letters, “Frances Ethel Gumm”. Those of you who know your trivia quizzes understand already. Frances started using the name “Judy Garland” when she was twelve, and this was one of only a handful of things she wrote her original name on. (Don’t call in; it sold.)

One could go on and on, of course, but I was a bit troubled that none of the speakers addressed the greatest benefit of owning a book that someone else, celebrated or anonymous, has read and re-read before you.

Less risk of papercuts. 

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