It’s the big names that get the publicity when we talk inscribed books. In years past the Newberry Library Book Fair has had things inscribed by Pablo Picasso, Fidel Castro, William Howard Taft, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. So far this year we have Charles Schulz, Ralph Nader, and Magic Johnson. And there’s still that copy of Alice in Wonderland signed by Alice.
But I have a soft spot for the signatures of the less rich and famous, whether they be the authors or the presenters of the book.
You never get the full story with gift inscriptions. This year I’m worrying a little about “To Yum from Yum Yum” and even more about “To Daddy from Condi’. (Couldn’t be, could it?) And there are those Victorian gift inscriptions which may include long, flowing, passionate verse vowing eternal love and affection only to reveal at the end that the book was given “To Millicent from her Loving Sister Gertrude”.
Most poignant gift inscription so far? The little journal inscribed “Merry Christmas To My Husband. Fill the Pages With Love.” The rest of the journal was blank.
The fad right now in author inscriptions is for no inscription at all, just a signature. I find that to be an empty gesture: I know these fools can spell their own names; I want to know what else they have to say. “To Mortimer Adler from Nobody” told me plenty about the author’s self-esteem. And who can beat “To Joe; that’s you I’m talking about in Chapter Five”?
You get poignant inscriptions in this line, too. I wish I’d kept the one where the author recorded forever the painful circumstances in which he found his book. “Remaindered! In Paris! And in Spring!”
There is a third category of inscription, I guess. A book dealer I knew once groused in her catalog, “Don’t these people know they’re passing up their one chance at immortality?” Yet to some people it is vital to erase, ink out, or slice away any sign that they once owned a book. (Yum or Yum Yum probably should have thought of that.)
Once upon a time, the Book Fair received a book of the proceedings of an African-American conference just after the turn of the last century. The main speakers, some sixteen in all, had signed the lengthy inscription at the front of the book: Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, George Washington Carver, and Marcus Garvey seem to have been among the group.
I had to learn this through the use of a high-powered photocopy machine, though. The previous owner had carefully erased every letter, every name, and every word of the inscription. THAT was the saddest inscription the Book Fair has seen so far.