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On Inscriptions
greg staples art, diabolical tutor, Magic
Here’s one tiny fragment of reality that dwindles as we embrace Nooks, iPods and Kindles: the epigraph, the personalized inscription in a book given as a gift, or in special cases, in books signed by the author.

I own books that I might have gotten rid of except for the strange circumstances behind their epigraphs. I’d say the stories that follow will be bitter-sweet, but you may have to dip through the lines to find the sweetness.

The first inscribed treasure is a copy of Ulysses, a green hardcover, slightly water-damaged. I still haven’t read Joyce. But sometimes I pick up the hardcover and read the beautiful notes penciled in the margins. The book was a gift from a friend who went away on a world tour, she wanted me to read Joyce and I said I’d love to read the copy she was reading to me from—the copy with her notes. She came back from her big trip through Asia but was slain a few weeks later traveling in the United States. I can’t read Joyce without thinking of her and so far that means I haven’t read Joyce.

Another book is a duplicate of a book by one of my favorite authors, Annie Dillard. Teaching a Stone to Speak is a collection of her essays and short stories, some brilliant, some just alright. One of my two copies is held together by a rubber band. Every few years I peel off the rubber band and am surprised to discover that the book actually belongs to a dear friend. But the loving inscription inside, from her long-disappeared ex-lover, explains why it is in my possession. She didn’t want it, and I’d probably misplaced my copy, and hell, I don’t know if she knows I have it, maybe it was in a box she was selling off and I took it out, some odd circumstance seems likely. As a nod to the fact that I’m not really sure about this possession, I haven’t fully read the ex-lover’s note, I know it’s there, I know he’s a guy who has come into some renown in certain circles of the world, but I’m not going to pry deeper into the matter by seriously reading his note to my friend from back when they were together. Instead I replace the rubber band, saving it, maybe, for a day when I’m sure it no longer matters.

Once upon another time, Lisa had a job that didn’t work out well, thanks to crazy bosses. An environmental job. I was waiting for her at her workplace, looking for something to read, and found a blue hardback outdoor adventure book that had an inscription in the front, as if signed by the author, but the handwriting was terrible, so I thought maybe someone had just scribbled in it. I started reading the book. It lacked a dust jacket so I was spared any hint of the contents. I read a few pages and liked the style and then a thought surfaced that wouldn’t go away: was this the book by the guy who’d fallen in the canyons and escaped only by cutting off his own arm? I paged back to look at the map at the front and realized that yes, that’s what this book was: Between a Rock and a Hard Place, by Aron Ralston. And the inscription at the front of the book that said “For _______. Here’s to lessons learned” might very well be the signature of a man who was writing with his bad hand.

Which brings me to a final book, a copy of The Other Bible. This collection of Gnostic texts was once-upon-a time left in my house by a man who rode a Greyhound bus across the country intending to kill me. He didn’t succeed, thanks in part to the intervention of my housemate at the time, a Czech refugee who knew a bit more about violence than we pampered Americans. Huh. Long story. Deserves to be told some day. Passions had initially been aroused over a woman but a mad genius’ brand of Gnostic Christianity was all wrapped up in the situation, so when he went away and left his bible (no doubt to help with my revival), I kept it. Partly I loved the newspaper clipping he’d pasted inside the front cover, a picture of a shoeshine man named Gene Stewart quoted saying “I attend Mass more often than I used to, and I don’t smoke as much. I don’t worry as much either.”

So I kept the Bible, always kind of expecting that there was some really good reason I was keeping it. A few years ago I heard that my former rival/attacker had killed himself skiing into a tree at 50 miles an hour, such a terrible collision that his heart burst instantly. Skiing into a tree? Man.

A couple weeks ago I found The Other Bible while unpacking a box of books. I took it out, wondering if I was still going to hang onto it. Flipped it open, saw the yellowed newspaper clipping of Gene Stewart that made me smile. Then saw the handwritten inscription on the bottom of the inside cover underneath the clipping, words that I’d never noticed before:

Swallow a tree.
Laugh it off.
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Damn but you sure can write those ecdotes. I'm left hanging, wanting to know more about the Gnostic guy and his odd quest.

Myles, I imagine I'll say more in the new draft of the book you saw an earlier draft of.

So many untold stories packed into one blog post!

It's true that I ran through stories the way you'd run fingers over the spines on a bookshelf.

Great post, Rob, and you're right--the personal connections in inscriptions and signings make a book even more special. It's why I inisist on writing something in every book I give my wife....and I should check that I did so on her birthday books that are to be wrapped immediately for tonight's gift-giving. Thanks for the reminder!

whose best marginalia/inscription copy is a three-volume auction catalogue of author/bibliophile A. Edward Newton's library with two sets of notes throughout by the previous owner--all guesses on auction prices and then the final bids and initials on who won the items (with some famous book collectors of the 1940's noted in there)

I got to look up A. Edward Newton. You, sir, own an extremely rare bird of a book.

This it the best, most thought-provoking blog post I've read in ages, and I say that as long-term blogger myself, and host of a site with a dozen other bloggers doing yeoman blog service there. You can tell a story, dude . . . bravo!!

I'm sharing. Hope you don't mind. Your writing merits it . . .

Eric, coming from you that's high praise. Thanks. Of course I don't mind you sharing it: thanks again.

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