“I wrote it with a second hand”: Collecting Book Inscriptions

“Whether we are staking ownership claims or inscribing a dedicatory message, the act of writing in a book seems to set that particular copy apart from the many hundred identical ones that are travelling the world waiting to be displayed and purchased. The book is personalized.” Writes Sujaan Mukherjee

It was around the age of eleven or twelve that I discovered the possibility of playing mind-games with oneself. Things I liked could be held up as a carrot by me to make myself do things I wasn’t too keen on. I liked the idea of books but I was a lazy reader. I would buy books at the bookfair, bring them home, smell them, write my name inside them (including which class and section I was in at the time) with great flourish, and arrange them proudly on the shelf. Perhaps a fortunate few would even be read.

collage 2
Sketch: Trinamoy Das (left), Prapti Roy (right)

When this critical realization (playing mind-games, i.e.) dawned on me, I started to incentivize reading of books by agreeing to put my name on my copy only after I reached a certain point. On rare occasions, my ‘reader superego’ and my ‘hoarder id’ would come to an agreement and break this rule. This happened, for instance, when Apu decided that the Mahabharata didn’t dwell on the battles nearly as much as it should have—a feeling I had had when reading Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s Chhotoder Mahabharata in school. At that point both parts of me agreed that no external incentive would be necessary to ensure that I finish the book. Whether or not I understood the book, it was oddly reassuring to know that the book understood me.

‘Words to look up’ | Prize Stories 1984 (see more)

Some readers believe in an almost sacred inviolability of the printed volume: marginalia, they feel, should be made in pencil, if at all. Leaving the question of annotating or highlighting a book for another day, I think most readers will agree that the moment of actually breaching this divide between the complete, printed object and the personal is an exciting one. Whether we are staking ownership claims or inscribing a dedicatory message, the act of writing in a book seems to set that particular copy apart from the many hundred identical ones that are travelling the world waiting to be displayed and purchased. The book is personalized. And the personal, albeit in a superficial sense, is written into the book.

I think it was the magic of this moment that lured me in the direction of the Endpapers Archive project. I spoke to a couple of friends and in principle the idea seemed simple enough. We start with an online platform. Put up some of our own copies and invite others to submit their entries. It didn’t have to be anyone famous. I checked online and realized that like all seemingly bright ideas this too had occurred to someone before me. The Book Inscription Project had been doing an excellent job. We decided, however, that since we were thinking of this as something we’d do on the side, the parameters for images from books would have to be less exacting. The point was to encourage as many people to quickly photograph and send in their entries as possible. We created a Google Form that would help submitters record some basic metadata.

With the help of this metadata we are able to categorise the entries according to different sets of parameters, and automatically form connections between, say, books purchased at the Golpark secondhand bookshops, or books gifted on birthdays. The latter includes titles as varied in tone and temper as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor, a Bangla translation of Macbeth with a sensational cover, Chomsky’s On Anarchism, Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Kangal Malshat.

Looking through the collection, I realize that there is much one can say about the different ways in which people treat the pages that constitute the prelims in a book. We have, for example, an anonymous user who listed all the words they probably wanted to look up in an American Centre Library copy of Prize Stories 1984 (image above). Then there is Rabindra Kumar Dasgupta’s copy of Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (London, 1953),

‘Title page transcriptions’ | R.K.Dasgupta’s copy of Wilmot’s poems (see more)

where he appears to have made a list of “full title-page transcriptions of eight Rochester editions, as well as details of editions in the Bodleian and in Parkers.” Is it surprising that this person would go on to become director of the National Library of India? (The former was a contribution from Shalmi Barman, the latter from Prof. Abhijit Gupta.)

The collection has a few books that involve famous persons at either or both ends of an exchange.

‘Gift for cummings’ (see more)

There is a copy of Nakshatrer Raat (sent by Abhiroop De) which was a gift from the author, Moti Nandi to a certain Premendra Mitra on 26 May 1959. (Did they meet? What did they discuss? Did Mitra go on to read the book?) There is a copy of Catullus’s Complete Poetry, which was meant as a gift to e e cummings (contributed by Ariadne van de Ven). It may never have reached cummings, who would not in any case have appreciated the gift-giver’s disregard for his punctuation preferences! Then there are books that contain autographs, dedications by famous authors and much more—but users can discover them on their own.

Looking back, I think what draws me most to the growing collection is the mystery of the moment of exchange. Sometimes we know the occasion, sometimes we know the names. Sometimes it’s a gift to a “favourite uncle” from a “favourite nephew (he hopes)” or to a daughter from “Ma and Baba”.

‘Poetry as peace truce’ (see more)

You can only guess at the relationship between the gift -giver and -receiver, and what passed between them not just at the moment the book changed hands, but when with great fondness (or desire for a peace truce like this copy of Lorca!) people wrote the messages that would make that copy unique. This archive by nature frustrates the hope of knowing much about what it collects and the unsaid, unrecorded contexts assume a peculiar power over our imagination. Perhaps it is best that I too leave the rest unsaid in the hope that people will discover their favourites in the archive for themselves!

Sujaan is a is a JU-Sylff PhD Researcher at the Department of English at Jadavpur University. He judges books by their covers and takes an interest in urban history.
Title photograph: Supriyo Mitra
Inscription photographs are from the EndPapers Archive
Next post on 10th February

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