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2001-09, 331, Asides, Jon Prance

Writing in Books

Scene.. A boys’ boarding school, England, the 1950s. One evening during “Prep”. A master is walking slowly up and down the aisles of desks. He stops at one.

Master: How dare you write in a book like that!

Boy: But Sir, it’s my book, I paid for it Sir!

Master: How dare you answer me back like that!

The boy concerned was writing in pencil, and to this day believes he had a right to deface his own property. But this begs the question: Does hand-writing in a book always devalue it? May it not enhance it sometimes? Are there any rules for book inscriptions?

There are several types of book-writing. Generally, the term “inscription” is used for a gift or presentation copy. The sender is the author, or the recipient someone famous, then this kind of writing surely adds interest to the volume, and perhaps value too. Both may be unknown, but the message can be amusing, moving or intriguing enough to attract a purchaser. A book I bought 45 years ago is Marcus Aurelius’ To Himself (translated by G.R. Rendall,1902). At the front is the message: “To my Robin – Carissimus, optimus, verissimus, nobilissimus – these words of the second best” but there is no name below. I have bought several books for messages like this – sometimes even without having much interest in the contents.

Do you put your name in a book that you have just bought? I used to, until one day about fifteen years ago, I read in a secondhand catalogue: “Good copy, apart from a signature at the front”. Surely you have the right to place a sign of ownership on your property, whether a signature, a book plate or a book label. But let the signature be neat and legible, the book plate attractive and the book label give the address too. I have begun to write my name in books again, and am considering a personalised book plate, for the more valued items in my collection.

Some books, especially older ones, have writing at the front or back that may outweigh the text itself. My oldest book, ScalaSanta, a collection of prayers published in 1792, has endpapers filled with curious and pathetic messages by previous owners (Biblionews No.293, p.21). Another book, The Poetical Works of John Keats, edited by Francis Palgrave in 1896, has an even stranger thing: on page 210, in the middle of “The Eve of St. Agnes”, there are the lines: “Into her dream he melted, as the rose/Blendeth its odour with the violet”. In the margin alongside, there is a small coloured mark that  at first I took for a squashed fly. It is in fact a tiny, perfect painting of a violet

To return to the errant schoolboy of the 1950s, there are many readers who mark their books in the margin with a pencil line against a part of interest and at the back make a list, e.g. “p.59 – books as friends”. I regularly do this, and my excuse is a sentence from a favourite anthology, Another World Than This … (Joseph,1943). In their foreword, the compilers, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, said that “they had both been in the habit for many years of marking passages which particularly pleased them, and of scribbling an index for reference at the end of each book – as every true reader of books should train himself to do.”

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