Sunday, November 02, 2014

`To Recall Us to Our Own Mortality'

Please read “Eternal Youth, Eternal Kitsch,” one of Theodore Dalrymple’s finest essays of late. He sees much in the inscriptions left in books. At least until recently, even the illiterate tended to treat a volume with some degree of reverence. To make a gift of a book implied respect for the recipient and for books in general. It was not the same as giving a box of candy. Pride mixes into this, of course. One flatters oneself when giving a book rather than a pair of socks to a friend or loved one. Our good taste and sensitivity are underlined. But beyond that, books once suggested to many a handing on of something prized – call it culture or learning. The giver is sharing what he has cherished. A book can be among the most intimate of gifts, a palpable sample of the giver’s sensibility.                                                              

Here is an example. My father-in-law some years ago gave us his Heritage Press edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1950. I haven’t read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle since early adolescence and have no intention of doing so. I enjoyed the Holmes/Watson stories – once. Like science fiction, one puts them away with other childish things. This edition comes with a slipcase. On the cover is embossed a black, oval-shaped cameo of Holmes smoking his pipe. His image is flanked by two “VR”s formed with a series of ragged dots. Holmes, of course, decorated the wall in his quarters on Baker Street with a “VR” (Victoria Regina) made of bullet-holes from his pistol. This copy is neither rare nor notably attractive, and the spine has begun to separate, but its heft is a pleasure to hold and the typeface is easy on the eyes. 

In the inscription, however, is the book’s true worth. Addressed “To my Grandson, Mike” (that is, to my father-in-law, now seventy-five), is this sentence: “Hoping he may get as much adventure out of Sherlock Holmes as I did at his age, Grandpa.” Below, my wife’s great-grandfather writes “Christmas 1952.” Why do I find the silent shift from first- to third-person in the sentiment so poignant? Dalrymple suggests: 

“…there is nothing quite like an inscription in a book no longer owned by the dedicatee to capture the melancholy, the bittersweetness, of the passage of time, to recall us to our own mortality and to remind us of the vanity of so much of what preoccupies us.”

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