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Opinion » Columns » Pradeep Sebastian

Updated: August 6, 2011 18:42 IST

Endpaper: Stories with a personal history

PRADEEP SEBASTIAN
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Other People’s Books: Association Copies and the Stories They Tell. Photo: Special Arrangement
Other People’s Books: Association Copies and the Stories They Tell. Photo: Special Arrangement

Artistically produced, scholarly and entertaining accounts about famous association copies of rare books.

When bibliophiles make books for other bibliophiles, you get a book like the one I have the pleasure (and the luck) to write on. Other People's Books: Association Copies and the Stories they Tell is the ultimate book about books: richly illustrated essays about famous association copies of rare books. An Association Copy in bibliospeak is a book signed and inscribed by the author to someone famous or someone significantly associated with the author. To illustrate: a hypothetical, plausible example, if Nehru were to have signed and inscribed a copy of Glimpses of World History to Gandhi. Such an association copy would be valued not just in the collector's market, but would be a cultural artefact to be pursued and preserved. Another nice association copy would be a copy of A God of Small Things inscribed by Arundhati Roy to her mother. An intriguing association copy would be a copy of Sir Vidia's Shadow, signed and inscribed by Paul Theroux to Naipaul. (I've heard that such a copy exists).

Wide range of topics

Printed by The Caxton Club, and distributed by Oak Knoll Books, Other People's Books is 52 accounts of association copies from curators of libraries, private collectors and book dealers on books that range from astronomy, ornithology, psychology, literature, art, political science and even film. Each essay is accompanied by full page reproductions of the various relevant and exciting pages of each Association Copy. And in full close-up: photographic details of the inscriptions left by authors to recipients. You can feast your eyes on the actual handwriting of Whitman, Thoreau, Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, and Herman Melville. Their personal inscriptions vary from being intimate to witty to overwrought. The physical book is quarter-leather (8x11 inches) hardbound, 224-pages, and “printed in four-colors in Italy in an edition of 1000 with 112 images”.

At the heart of what distinguishes such copies from other copies is that it has a personal history. The copy has its own story to tell, very much apart from the story inside it! Book historians point to how every book has a personal history for its reader-owner; in this sense all books carry personal histories like the marginalia you scribble in your book, or our memories of when and where and how we read a book, and a specific copy that has personal meaning for you, and the friends and family you might have shared it with. In his lively, wide ranging introduction here, scholar-bibliophile Thomas Tanselle writes that an association copy “indicates the life history of an individual copy…that they have both scholarly and emotional appeal… they make us probe deeper, inscriptions raise our curiosity – who is this person the book is presented to, what did they mean to the author? Sentiment is valid here, not sentimentality….”

Unique copies

A particular copy can evoke memories and associations that is quite outside the book, and in this sense, observes Tanselle gently, “We all have such personal associations with the books — inscribed or uninscribed — that we posses, and in this sense all copies of books are association copies.” But if an Association Copy has to arouse the interest and curiosity of a larger community of readers, scholars, and collectors, it has to have a personal history that culturally or historically resonates with and for everyone. (In other words, a book you inscribed to your mother is going to be of great worth and interest precisely to two people: you and your mum). Featured in this book are numerous marvellous instances of such unique, high-end copies. As one vintage book catalogue once described it: “An exhibition of books made interesting through their association.”

Thoreau and Whitman met just once in their lifetime and exchanged copies of their books after inscribing it to each other. Mark Dimunation, Chief of the Rare Book Division at the Library of Congress, records the story: It was an autumn afternoon in Brooklyn, 1856, when they met; Whitman with his Leaves of Grass, and Thoreau with A Week on the Concord, 1849. They offered each other their books. “Thoreau carefully pencilled: “H.D. Thoreau from Walt Whitman on the flyleaf. Whitman scrawled his signature…later Whitman documented this extraordinary meeting in the book with a longish note: ‘We had a two hours talk+walk — I liked him well — I think he told me he was busy at a surveying job down on Staten Island. He was full of animation – seem'd in good health — look'd very well — WW'. A century later, two separate book collectors pursuing both association copies tracked them down, and they are now reunited at the Library of Congress.

Gift from an aunt

Also featured here is a copy of the poems of William Cowper, gifted by Jane Austen to her favourite niece, Fanny. Cowper, poet and hymnodist, was Austen's favourite verse maker and, visiting Fanny once, she couldn't pass up the chance to thrust a copy of these poems on her. The inscription on the verso of the front free endpaper, which you can see a detailed close-up of in Other People's Books, reads: ‘Fanny Cath Austen/June 29, 1808/The Gift of her Aunt Jane'.

Other association copies in this book that interested me: a copy of The Whale that Melville inscribed to his whaling mate, Richard Bentley in 1851, and the T.S. Eliot-inscribed copy of The Great Gatsby, with Fitzgerald, known for poor spelling, oblivious to the misspelling in the inscription: “For T.S. Eliot/Greatest of Living Poets/from his entheusiastic worshipper/ F. Scott Fitzgerald/Paris/Oct/1925”.

Telling this story, Samuel Street, Director Special Collections, Brown University, notes that Eliot graciously ignored the misspelling and wrote back to say he had already read it twice, saying his praise was in no way influenced by “your charming and overpowering inscription.” As this book itself notes, Associations Copies as a book-theme is ‘an underpublished subject', so bibliophiles can only be grateful for such an artistically produced, scholarly, entertaining book on tell-tale copies that continues to be, in the digital half-world, still filled with devotion and awe for the printed book.

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