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Fine Books Review

By Association

In his essay, Stephen Enniss tells us the bittersweet tale of poet Ted Hughes’ shabby Shakespeare in the Emory University collection. Hughes read and re-read his Complete Works, wooing Sylvia Plath with passages by heart. The volume, a 1923 reprint, is a “seemingly unremarkable book,” according to Enniss, but, “It seemed an ideal book to demonstrate how a past association, and the lingering marks of ownership it contains, can elevate the ordinary into something quite special.” The fact that this tattered volume could be considered a “prop in their later domestic tragedy,” as Enniss put it, presents superb evidence not only for its singular importance in studying Hughes, Plath, or British literary history, but for the importance of studying provenance and book ownership.

Henry David Thoreau gave this copy of his book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, to Walt Whitman one day in 1856. Whitman used the front flyleaf to document their meeting. Courtesy of The Library of Congress.

Mark Dimunation’s relevatory essay, “Whitman and Thoreau Meet in Brooklyn,” is something of a double essay, recounting how the two greats exchanged copies of their books and how they annotated them (Thoreau sparingly, Whitman lavishly). Whitman took the opportunity to document his meeting with Thoreau on the front flyleaf, writing, “We had two hours talk and walk—I liked him well … He was full of animation.” The story of how the books met again on the shelves of the Library of Congress is bibliographically breathtaking.

The introduction by preeminent bibliography scholar G. Thomas Tanselle provides the kind of essay on these books that has been lacking, demolishing the idea that an interest in association copies is “ludicrous sentimentality” and expounding upon the notion that books are cultural artifacts that offer us a window to history. Other People’s Books seems destined to be one of those books that astute bibliophiles will acquire for their collections, and those who do not will regret it years hence. With an edition of just one thousand copies, that’s entirely plausible.

According to its website, this is the sixty-sixth book published by the Caxton Club, a group of about 350 members who meet twice monthly for bookish events. A gala book launch is planned for March 18, followed by a symposium at the Newberry Library on March 19 that features three guest speakers: Heather Jackson, professor of English and author of Marginalia; Tom Congalton, proprietor of Between the Covers in Gloucester, New Jersey; and David Pearson, director of libraries, archives and Guildhall Art Gallery in London.

Rebecca Rego Barry is the editor of this magazine.
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