It is true to say that every picture tells a story – time, place, people and events – all are captured in the blink of an eye or the flutter of a shutter. When it comes to old books the same is true – every book tells a story. For me, one of life’s little pleasures is to find an old book that catches my attention. Sometimes it may be on-line through e-bay or a bookseller site, most often it is while browsing a used bookstore in whatever city I may be visiting (I research them ahead of my visit), rarely it is in a garage or estate sale. Walking into a previously un-visited used bookstore is first a pleasure to the olfactory senses akin to entering a coffee-roaster, a wine shop or a distillery (to understand why see http://tinyurl.com/99tlo72). Secondly, it is a tactile pleasure – to take down those old books, feel their weight and open the cover in anticipation of what lies beneath.
The first thing one typically finds on the fly page is an inscription or dedication – perhaps the owner’s name or the giver and recipient’s names and possibly the date and place.
These are a few examples from some of my old books. They cause one to stop and ponder the lives of these people and the times they lived in – the First World War, the Depression era and the Second World War. “To dearest Uncle with treasured memories of a very happy month. Freda 6/9/44” Really? Three days after the D-Day landing in Normandy. Fascinating!
Some are a little more typical – family gifts to children, for example.
Rewards and Fairies was Kipling’s follow up to the famous Puck of Pook’s Hill. It is delightful to contemplate Uncle Charles sitting down in front of the fire to read to his nieces and nephews after Christmas dinner in 1911 with no television or radio to distract them.
Books were always on my Christmas wish list – in fact, because our Dad worked in Fleet Street, he would bring home an extensive list of books he had access to and we children could browse the list and make our selections from it. It was a delight, on Christmas morning to find those beautiful new books waiting under the tree for us – perhaps one of my favorite childhood memories.
One of the books I remembered clearly was Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter – the story (obviously) of an otter. Set in Devon, England in the early 20th Century, it is a remarkably detailed and accurate catalog of the flora, fauna and overall ecosystem of that part of the country. It also tells (unsympathetically) the story of Tarka from his birth to his untimely and tragic but noble death, along with an accurate portrayal of the annual otter hunts which took place in those years. Just this past year, I decided to find a copy of the book and re-read it. It was even better than I previously recalled. When I opened the cover, there on the fly page sat an inscription:
Considering that the recipient received his book around the same time I received mine; and given the fact that he had a very distinct name, my curiosity was aroused and I wondered what became of this boy. As it turns out, he went on to obtain his PhD and is now the headmaster of a prestigious private school in New England. It reinforces that old adage that ‘readers are leaders’.
Some books come into our possession via other means. I don’t know if it is still common practice or not to will books to others, but I found this in one of my books:
It would appear Mr. Rich had a stamp made specifically for the diaspora of his library upon his demise. That’s a nice way to be remembered by one’s friends and family members.
A charming little illustrated book with the stamp of the publisher. It would appear that it was subsequently sold for the price of seven pence. That alone should giver the reader some idea how old the book is!
One of the outstanding features of many old book dedications is the quality of penmanship. In this digital era the art of writing is rapidly diminishing among the population at large (to say nothing of spelling!). So when one opens the cover of an old book and discovers a beautifully written inscription with lovely penmanship (using a fountain pen), it is a visual pleasure (as in the following example – which has the added pleasure for me of coming from my hometown, Glasgow – significantly before my time (in fact while my parents were infants in Glasgow).
Then, of course, there are often other surprises and stories to be told in the pages of the books by those things tucked between the pages. Take a look at this website for some interesting examples: http://www.thingsinbooks.com/. I have heard of people finding such oddities as the skeleton of a Kipper (Smoked Haddock) which had been used as a bookmark! Perhaps the one that delights me the most is this tram ticket from Melbourne, Australia which must have been placed there by the reader while riding the tram in the early part of the 20th century. It has been there so long that the color of the ticket bled into the paper of the book.
Another find that fascinated me came in a book by a favorite author Antoine de Saint-Exupery (The Little Prince; Wind, Sand and Stars) called The Wisdom of The Sands. In this instance the story was told by several pieces of correspondence (hand-written and typed) and a snapshot of a castle or monastery (presumably) somewhere in Europe. I have been completely unable to determine the location! Regardless, it is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of two friends (male and female). It is rather strange that it should have been left there when the book was discarded. Perhaps someone was cleaning out a family member’s possessions upon their death and the book was boxed up with others in haste. Who knows, but it is fun to speculate!Finally, there are those books that make their way to us from strange and exotic locations and one can only wonder how they traveled and by what route. I have an old book of poems by Rudyard Kipling – a collection from his other books. It was once part of the library of a hotel in the South of France (according to the stamp). The hotel is still thriving and I’m sure they are not missing Mr. Kipling!There is a fellow in England who has a blog geared specifically to book dedications. Of course, I find it quite fascinating! http://bookdedications.wordpress.com/author/waynebg/
Don’t forget to dedicate the books you give away – posterity will look on and wonder…