It’s the time of year for sitting indoors, perhaps round a big, roaring fire (best if you have a fireplace) and sharing stories. When the wind whips snow past the window, telling a story can take you miles away, to another time and place. And that is why you want books from the Book Fair, of course. Not only does the text of each book have its story to tell, but those everloving inscriptions just inside the cover hold mystery, romance, and adventure in a few short lines.
I don’t mean just those “To Darling Denver from her Memorable Mum” inscriptions, which, as they hint at possible homicide, as exciting enough. I mean the ones which instruct or mystify us. Take, for example, “From one poet to another”, which popped up in a book just this week. This turned out to be instructive. Even if I had not known that John Hall Wheelock was a poet—which I do, since I’ve had his books before–I might have guessed it from the fact that it is a book of poetry. But I had never heard of Dorothy Dow, to whom he inscribed it, and now know about one more Illinois poet. I am still in the dark about the occasion. Had she sent HIM a book, and he was just retaliating, or had she written a nice review of his work, or what?
A similar book came in inscribed “From one author to another”. This fellow did not give us the name of the recipient of the book. In fact, he didn’t REALLY give us his name, because although the inscription is in English, he signed his name in Hebrew. The exciting suspense story here is “How do I convince my customers that that IS an autograph?”
I think I get the point of the book in which someone has left a note to say “The only excuse I have for this one is that one of the authors is Jewish.” It was a collection of mystery short stories, and I assume these folks were used to swapping more serious stuff (and may be responsible for the massive collection of Judaica which came in around the same time.)
The prize this time around, though, goes to a copy of Jamaica Inn, published shortly after the movie came out, as it features a boisterous Charles Laughton in his jovial best in the frontispiece. The book, I must note, looks as if it has been read a few times. I do not know whether this relates to the inscription, nor do I know how many owners the book has had since it was inscribed October 15, 1939. It MAY be that the original recipient gave it away at once.
See, the inscription doesn’t tell us the WHOLE story, just “To my Dear Wife in memory of our Trip to Chicago. Which you didn’t take.”
Now this, truth to tell, is the reason I want to win the lottery. Not to send detectives searching through old files and diaries to find the truth, but to reward those who can explain the inscription in any way. Every year, I could sponsor a writing contest. One year it would be “explain that inscription in terms of a mystery story” and the next it would be “explain that inscription as if the people involved were characters in a sitcom.” Is the husband angry or is he teasing? Did missing that Chicago trip mean they narrowly avoided being killed in a train accident or did staying home mean she found the buried treasure Uncle Jasper buried under the barn floor?
Was the book chosen because of some connection with the inscription? Would they have met Charles Laughton if only they had gone to Chicago? Or did Daphne du Maurier, the author of Jamaica Inn, happen to drop by Ottawa, Illinois, or wherever they were, and visit them because they didn’t go to Chicago? Were they just going to Chicago to see Jamaica Inn, and he is congratulating her on missing what is considered to be Alfred Hitchcock’s worst film?
In any case, you will find this book in Collectibles next July. Not because the book is all that valuable or rare, but because the inscription is unique.