Bookplates, and the Lack Thereof

I like these bookplates (and bookplatters) very much. If I ever got around to having the kind of parties where nuts and olives were set out on tables in civilized fashion—as opposed to the kind where a bunch of people cram in around my kitchen table and eat and drink a lot and talk over each other—I would want them set out in these. Unfortunately, they only seem to be available wholesale, so unless you’re opening a restaurant or have a lot of friends who want to go in on a case of tableware with you, they’re probably not very practical. Thanks to Book Riot, though, for pointing them out.

The thought of bookplates triggered a memory, though: Back in my just-post-college years, when I read a lot but had no real sense of books as enduring objects, I came up with what I thought was a great set of Christmas presents for a bunch of my closest friends: Custom rubber stamps for personalizing books. Each was hand-lettered with his or her name, “Ex Libris,” and a bookish image that reflected something of their personalities—really lovely things, made with care. I had no clue that people mostly didn’t want to rubber-stamp their books. I had been writing my name in all my books—new, used, and gift—since I was old enough to write my name, and I did this well into my 20s. I have a few otherwise really nice signed firsts that, unfortunately, bear my name and the date in Sharpie marker on the flyleaf. Not a tragedy in the greater scheme of things, I guess; I don’t plan on selling them to make the mortgage anytime soon. But I do wish I’d been a little less vociferous in my pride of ownership. I realized, eventually, that people had those delicately gummed bookplates printed up for a reason, but I still have a lot of books that are marked boldly as mine forevermore.

Then again, I come by it honestly. My mother, a wide-ranging and adventurous reader in her time, was always a writer in books. Marginalia, scoring and underlining, and on every flyleaf her name and the date and often a little something about its provenance. And while I’ve broken myself of the habit, I’m enormously gratified that she never did. She has a wonderful library, not enormous but fascinating and eclectic, accumulated over a good 60 years.

But even a lifetime of deep reading habits is ephemeral in the end, and I’d be surprised if she even looks at the Pennysaver that comes in the mail every week. Her reading days are over; memento mori. No matter how much we love our books, they’ll end up outlasting our eyesight, our cognitive powers, and ultimately us.

So I’ll admit to a little transgression here. Every once in a while, at the end of one of my biweekly visits, I’ll borrow a book. I always ask, and she always says yes graciously; we have a long history between us of lending and borrowing books, although in the past there was always the understanding that they’d be returned. At this point all bets are off, although I keep careful accounts of what I’ve liberated—I have two good siblings, and the books will someday be just as much theirs as mine. Still, there’s an element of pilfering, if only because some days with mom are better than others and some days I feel like I deserve a little reward for being a good and loving daughter. So I say, “Mom, is it OK if I borrow this?” And she says, “Of course, honey.” Random stuff that catches my greedy eye: a 1958 copy of Edmund Wilson’s The American Earthquake: A Documentary of the Jazz Age, the Great Depression, and the New Deal, Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth, a Random House galley of The Da Vinci Code (a book I’ll probably never read, but if I did, that would be the only conceivably cool format), and, most recently, a beat-up paperback copy of Renata Adler’s Speedboat.

That last one I noticed because it’s been turning up like clockwork on people’s lists of criminally out-of-print books that deserve reissue—both New York Review Books and Melville House have laid claims to it in past years, but so far it hasn’t reappeared. And I wonder, how did it end up on my mom’s radar? Was it talked about in the smart circles she and my father hung in during the ’70s, or some other smart circles I don’t know about, or did she read a review somewhere, or was she suckered in by the “Best First Novel of the Year Ernest Hemingway Award” blurb on the front? I don’t suppose I’ll ever know. And to add to the mystery, in pencil on the inside cover: London – 6/85, 25p. That was our trip to Europe together after I graduated college. I don’t remember her buying it, but then I don’t remember much from those years, which were a little frayed around the edges and full of questionable decisions beyond writing my name in books.

But it does me some good to know that she bought it then; the information fixes it solidly in my timeline as well as hers. Looking at my own ridiculous sprawling library, it’s pretty much impossible to second-guess what future generations will or won’t appreciate in terms of annotation. So I continue not to write my name in my books, and hope that my heirs will cherry-pick what they like, sell the rest, and not lose too much sleep wondering when I acquired what, or where. Ironically, the biggest potential novelty item of the bunch is probably that galley of The Da Vinci Code—unsellable, with my mother’s neat signature written firmly across the cover. On my shelves it stays.

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2 Comments to Bookplates, and the Lack Thereof

  1. nbm's Gravatar nbm
    June 27, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Lisa, I know someone who was trying to put together a group to buy a case of the large platters. Lemme see if that’s still in the works, and there’s one for you. (It’s our preservation librarian, who is charmingly obsessed by book-shaped objects.)

    Those stamps must have been fabulous. Did you carve them, or have them made from a drawing? Your friends could have stamped onto labels, silly people.

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