Other People’s Books: Association Copies and the Stories They Tell

Other People’s Books Association Copies and the Stories They Tell. The Caxton Club (2011).

Like a junkie seeking a secret fix, I furtively ordered a copy of Other People’s Books Association Copies and the Stories They Tell. I must confess to a penchant for books signed by their authors and inscribed to professional colleagues, family members or friends. I treasure the gems in my own collection and strive to locate and place other such ‘wants’ in the hands of my customers. For those of us who seek to broaden our knowledge of this branch of scholarly inquiry or sate a curiosity about the passions that drive other bibliophiles, Other People’s Books will engage and enthrall.

Kim Coventry’s preface provides a background to the Caxton Club’s publication of this volume which was published along with a symposium of the same name held in March 2011 at the Newberry Library. Thomas Tanselle’s thoughtful introduction explores the history of association copies which contextualizes the contributions to this volume.

According to Tanselle, the significance of association copies and the more formal recognition of the importance of a book’s provenance within the book world did not occur until after the late 1890s. The publication of Winterich’s A Primer of Book Collecting (1927) in the United States and Williams’ The Elements of Book Collecting (1927) in England and, slightly later, Jackson’s The Anatomy of Bibliomania (1931), marked the growing acceptance of association copies as a bona fide category for book collectors and sellers. Ongoing discussions about association copies revolve, in part, around the definition of what an association copy is, and this book is no exception. The definitions of association copies are rarely clear-cut and may include an author’s own copy, a copy presented by the author to a dedicatee, a presentation copy from an author to a mentor and a book with the bookplate and/or signature or a well-known individual. Tanselle cogently discusses the various definitions of association copies and the congruency that exists between them. While he is in sympathy with Carter’s (1948) definition from The ABC for Book Collectors which states that this term applies to:

a copy which once belonged to, or was annotated by, the author; which once belonged to someone connected with the author or someone of interest in his own right; or again, and perhaps most interestingly, belonged to someone peculiarly associated with its contents. (Quoted in Tanselle, p. 13)

However, Tanselle further argues (2011, p. 14), “ It is important to allow extreme breadth to take in every kind of documented association and substituting a straightforward descriptive phrase (or more than one) as occasion demands”.

This book is comprised of fifty-two short essays of which twenty-four deal with volumes in institutional collections and twenty-eight deal with those in private hands. The books date from 1470 to 1986 and are set in England, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United States. The fields covered are wide-ranging and include astronomy, ornithology, political science, history, art, film and psychology. The greatest emphasis is placed on literary works. The essay, “Her favourite moral writer”: Jane Austen’s Cowper is contributed by Garth Reese, Assistant Curator of Printed Books and Bindings at The Morgan Library and Museum, New York. Reese introduces the extensive Cowper collection at The Morgan Library but focuses on Jane Austen’s personal copy of Cowper’s poems that she inscribed and gave to her closest niece Fanny Austen Knight in 1808. As highlighted by the title of the essay, the English poet William Cowper (1731-1800) was one of Austen’s favorite writers and she makes frequent references to and incorporates a number of Cowper’s poems in her novels. For example, as related by Reese, Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, describes Cowper’s poetry as “beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild” and Fanny Price in Mansfield Park quotes from Cowper’s The Task. Fanny Knight kept her aunt’s copy of Cowper for the rest of her life. After her death, Fanny Knight’s son Baron Brabourne was the first editor of Austen’s letters. He also annotated Austen’s personal copy of Cowper’s poems and outlined the relationship between Jane Austen and Fanny Austen Knight.

While“Her favourite moral writer” by Reese probes the provenance of a presentation copy with a unique literary history, Book-running in the Civil War by private collector John P. Chalmers explores the early life of a book that remains an historical document in its own right. Chalmers opens a window on a fascinating aspect of American Civil War history. In the spring of 1861, Lincoln had ordered a blockade against southern ports including Wilmington, Charleston and Savannah. Propelled by profit, patriotism or derring-do, many ‘blockade-runners’ took their lives into their own hands to deliver goods to these ostensibly closed ports. The subject of this essay is a unique copy of The Book of Common Prayer… of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America published abroad for the Confederate publisher J.W. Randolph in Richmond, Virginia in 1862 and designed specifically for Confederate use. Actually published in England, this copy and other Bibles and prayer books were shipped to Havana where they were transferred to the blockade runner Minna. The Minna was captured off Cape Romain, South Carolina by the Union ship the Circassian. While most of its book cargo was thrown overboard, only a few books, including this copy, survived to bear testament to this historic event.

Lavishly illustrated with full-colour photographs that complement the text, Other People’s Books is a splendid addition to any bookseller’s personal or reference library.

Other People’s Books: Association Copies and the Stories They Tell is available from Oak Knoll Books.

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