Thursday, August 16, 2007

Book Inscriptions

I recently reread 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff which is an epistolary love story between a brash American writer (poor, but with an antiquarian taste in literature) and an English bookshop which supplies her with beautiful old volumes which she cannot find in the United States.

The book opens in 1949 when meat, eggs, and other foodstuffs were still being rationed in England as a result of World War II. When Helene finds out about these restrictions ("2 ounces of meat per family per week and one egg per person per month"), she is appalled and arranges to send food parcels to the shop's staff through a company in Denmark. The book chronicles her relationship with the people in the shop through 1969. At one point they send her a copy of Elizabethan Poets, a beautiful book "with pages edged all round in gold" as a gift. In her thank you letter she writes,

I wish you hadn't been so over-courteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of on the flyleaf. It's the bookseller coming out in you all, you were afraid you'd decrease its value. You would have increased it for the present owner. (And possibly for the future owner. I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading pasages some one long gone has called my attention to.)
So do I. Many of the used books in my library have inscriptions. Most are simply the name of the previous owner, with perhaps a date.

C.W. Ihle. June 28, 1907.

That's an odd surname. Is it an abbreviation?

A few include addresses or phone numbers. I wonder what Mrs. Ellwood N. Hough (or, more likely, her heirs) would think upon receiving a mysterious postcard with the message, "I have your copy of Mamma's Boarding House." And why did she get rid of that book anyway? Or was her library junked by television-watching offspring after she went to that great library in the sky?

A copy of The Colleges of Oxford by Andrew Clark M.A is inscribed to

With his wife’s dearest love
Sept 27th/92 (That's 1892, by the way; the book was published in 1891.)

Was she interested in Oxford too? Or was she sweetly indulging her husband's favorite hobby horse?

And what is the story behind the inscription in Shakespeare's Songs and Poems?

With the hope that you'll be kept so busy reading these songs you won't have time to sing them. . .

Why Rome was written in 1930 by an Anglican gentleman who converted to Catholicism. My copy is inscribed by the author to:

Mr. George Longley

In appreciation of
past support
in my quest of God’s will.

Stephen Peabody Delany

I wonder if George Longley is mentioned in the book? I'll have to find out. (There are lots of books in my library I haven't yet read.)

I have a copy of Dr. Seuss's You're Only Old Once with the rueful inscription,

Dear Carmen
Welcome to MediCare!
Eddie & Ellen

I hope they are all well. My son worries that Carmen might be dead. But I prefer to think that she just laughed at Eddie's retirement gift before donning her red hat and heading off to an overseas adventure.

I recently stumbled across The Book Inscription Project which collects photos of books with interesting inscriptions. I thought this one was poignant:


Bought many years ago
to read in my old age
I now in old age, and
cannot easily read
this small print.
Buy a new bigger volume.

It was found in Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales. You can see it here.


rhinemouse said...

Wasn't there a chapter in Ex Libris by whatshername about inscriptions?

I had never heard about the Book Inscription Project. It looks absolutely charming.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman.

Yes, she has a beautifully written chapter called "Words on a Flyleaf" which, until you mentioned it just now, I had never read. In fact, I didn't even know it was in the book because I haven't read that either.

(Well, I'd read a couple of random chapters while standing in the bookstore deciding to buy a copy for my husband.)

Maureen said...

Ihle is a perfectly normal name. In Bavaria. :)

If you Google "Ihle", a whole clan's worth of references will appear.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Cool! I never thought of Googling "Ihle" because I just assumed that I was probably misreading the handwriting. Thanks Maureen!