Sunday, October 26, 2008

the intangibles of books

My recent posts have been focusing on books that have been handed down from one generation to the next, books that allow us to see evidence of the social transactions of books and the links they forge between family members. But we wouldn't be able to see that evidence if the books themselves weren't in such good shape to begin with.

The photo above is of one of my favorite books, and I mean that in a very material sense, not a textual sense: I love this particular book because it was my father's when he was a boy. I remember it sitting on his bookshelves in our house, and him telling me how fond he was of Robert Louis Stevenson. I've never actually read Kidnapped. And I'm not going to be able to read this copy. It's so fragile that the front cover came right off as I removed it from my bookshelf this afternoon. I'm not actually sure what year it was published--it was part of the Giant Junior Classics series, but there is no date on the book itself, and though my father was clearly young when he signed it, he didn't date his inscription. I could read a different copy, of course. It wouldn't be too hard to track one down, even another Giant Junior Classics issue. But it wouldn't be the same, I don't think. What I love about this book is knowing that he loved it when he was a child, and that he loved it enough to save it. Not being able to read this book doesn't make me any less fond of it.

It does, however, make me keenly aware of how unlikely it is that my children will have this book on their shelves, or their children. Or to have it someday be auctioned off at Sotheby's, as Frances Wolfreston's books were. That's okay, really. I don't think it's valuable to anyone other than me. There are plenty of mid-twentieth-century books that future readers and scholars and grandchildren could wish had stayed in good enough shape to hang on to. We're lucky that earlier books were made of comparatively sturdy stuff.

In my earlier posts about the Frances Wolfreston books and other books, I have been focused entirely on the material and social presences of books--how books are made, how they circulate between users. I have not dwelt on some of the other important aspects of books, including the emotional attachments that readers and owners form to them and with them. But I don't want to underplay the intangibles of books, either. My father's copy of Kidnapped is important because of those intangibles. And it is those intangibles that I share with my son when we read Charlotte's Web together. We actually each have our own: my childhood copy is on the right, only $1.25, and his is on the left, just released as a "major motion picture."

I was traveling while we were reading the book, so I bought him his own copy and took mine with me, so we could read it together over the phone. And because the book is still published by HarperCollins, we could read copies that were nearly identical, page for page. When we were on separated by hundreds of miles, being able to read together--to turn the pages at the same time and to look at the same Garth Williams drawings--made us feel as if we were sitting next to each other, reading our bedtime story. That closeness was possible through the material conditions and history of copyrights, publishing companies, printing processes, and marketing. But it was made possible first by the power not only of E.B. White's story, but of the very act of reading together. That's one of the amazing things about books and readings to which my posts in this blog have not always paid tribute. It's a hard thing to quantify, certainly, and hard even to put into words. But my relationship to books that I've been discussing here reminds me that the Chaucer that passed from Dorothy Egerton's hands to Anne Vernon's to Frances Wolfreston's isn't just a volume of paper in which readers inscribed their names. It's a book they sat with, and returned to, and passed on to others.

I've been negligent in posting recently, and this post has not dwelt at all on early modern books. But I'll be back up to speed again soon, with more posts on early books and book history. In the meantime, happy reading.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Montelyon's sword

I've been thinking a lot recently about the social lives of books and how they take on meaning through our uses of them. That's come in part from the moving Yom Kippur service I was at and the use of a rescued Lithuanian Torah scroll. More on that, and how it has been making me think about the lives of books and readers, in a future post.

But for this post, a much smaller look at a book from our period and the social and emotional life it suggests. So: Emanuel Ford's The famous historie of Mountelyon, Knight of the Oracle, and sonne to the renowned Presicles King of Assyria. The Folger's copy of this book is, unsurprisingly given my recent theme, one that was owned by Frances Wolfreston, and it has her characteristic inscription on leaf A3r: "Frances Wolfreston her bowk."

What I like about this particular book is that she seems to have given it to her son Francis, who also carefully inscribed it on the first leaf: "Francis Wolferston his Booke." (You can see bleed-through from the other side, on which a later Wolferstan decendant has inscribed his name and has repeated the title of the book.)

In 1652, the year that Francis has dated his inscription, he would have been fourteen years old. And later on in the book is the sort of marginalia that I imagine a 14 year-old boy reading a romance would want to draw: the hero's spear and sword.

I love that Frances bought this book, and then passed it on to her son, and that both of them marked it as their own. The fact that she gave it to him when he was still young, rather than him inheriting it as an adult, as was true of the other books that his brother was willed, makes it seem so much more evocative of a parent-child relationship. Or maybe it's that drawing of the sword that gets to me. The Chaucer is a big important book, and the marginalia only confirms what I think we already know from looking at it. Frances and Francis's inscriptions make this book, which would otherwise be a slight romance, into something more tantalizing and meaningful.