Alex Beam, a wonderful writer, writes about “the psychology of the bookplate” in Yale Alumni magazine. My father’s collection of books had some very nice bookplates (I actually would love to get some custom-made bookplates, in line with my retro way of thinking), and he would explain what the bookplate represented, and who the people were. (The copy of Ulysses that he gave to me is a prime example, with an absolutely gorgeous bookplate.)
Yale has a big collection of bookplates, which you can see here in a slideshow. Wait til you see what Charles de Gaulle had made as a bookplate. Wow! I find this stuff very emotional. I love it because I love artifacts, things where you can actually sense the person who owned them (the whole point of a bookplate in the first place – you put that bookplate in there and say: This is MINE.) – and I also love it because it reminds me of my father. These bookplates now act as relics – of a bygone age, certainly – when books had more value as objects – but also of the people who lived in other times. If you click through that Yale slideshow, you see there are as many types of bookplates as there are people. Some are graphic masterpieces, they could be posters – others feature poems that warn against “stealing” the book – The bookplate acts as a marker, a claim of ownership, so look out, thieves!
When I was little, really little, maybe 4 years old, my parents gave me some bookplates for me to put in my books. I wouldn’t even remember this, except that I have one of the books, with that bookplate still in it, and my attempt at writing my own name on the plate.
The book is Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. It is a hard cover, and is literally falling apart. The cover is no longer attached to the rest, but I have somehow kept it together through all the years. It has been with me since I first left home, decades ago, and have kept track of it through my various treks around the country. It’s been in all of my apartments.
The bookplate gives me a strange feeling, not altogether pleasant. I don’t truck with nostalgia much these days, at least not as far as my former selves are concerned, and so I am sure there is some discomfort because of that. But I look at my handwriting, and I have to admit, I get a sort of vast sensation inside.
A sense of continuity. The hand that wrote that name in the bookplate is the hand that is typing right now. Again, not altogether pleasant, but certainly interesting and I would say – valuable. It’s good to feel a sense of continuity through your life, all your different times and selves.
It’s also good to know that some things never change. These days I write my name and the date of purchase in every single book I own. It’s a ritual. I have been doing this for years, so I can glance at a book and see immediately “where I was at” when I bought it. But that impulse to leave my mark, to say “this is mine”, was there from the beginning, of course encouraged by my father, who was the same way.
Thanks, Alex Beam, for the reminder.