Saturday, 12 January 2013

A Bookplate Can Change Your Life

My life changed in a small but significant way over Christmas when I became the proud owner of a bookplate, made by my mother-in-law. She is a talented artist who paints and makes painted canvas floor rugs, and on this occasion she designed a new font for my initials. It's jaunty, modern and generally fun, and I love it. I'm supposed to be doing my taxes but instead I'm going through the bookshelves, pulling out books and sticking labels in them.

Happily for someone as clumsy as me the bookplates are self-adhesive, otherwise I'd be getting covered in glue as I followed instructions like these. As it is, I can just about line up a label and stick it in the right place.

Where my life has changed (albeit in a small way) is in the way I think about books. Generally I've always had a pragmatic attitude towards them, finding what I need in libraries or second hand bookshops and worrying about the content rather than the book itself. On my desk at the moment I have a mound of battered tomes, dug out from the depths of the Bristol Central Library by the ever-helpful staff, alongside a few of my own books: 'England in Particular', 'Mrs Grieve's Modern Herbal' and Robert Harling's 'Engravings of Eric Ravilious'.

Having a bookplate is making me look again at the books I own. Some of them, I realise now, have been around a long time. My copy of 'The Shock of the New' has a label pasted inside it to remind me that I was given it as a school history prize in 1984. My choice of Robert Hughes' book was not a popular one with the authorities. They complained that it wasn't a history book, but thirty years on it does look like one...

I was always taught not to write in books, but I think this is wrong. A book is a conversation between writer and reader, not a monologue, and sometimes a particular passage demands a comment, just as it's impossible sometimes to sit quietly through films and TV shows. Who could have watched the first episode of the new Borgen without crying out 'It's the Dad from "The Killing!"' or 'Hey, isn't he the real Staatsminister?!'

Books serve as a record of our lives in a way that nothing else does. My copy of 'Ulysses' reminds me that I was for a short time an ardent post-structuralist, puritanical and not much fun. A copy of the Taschen book on 'Expressionism' has pages missing where I cut favourite pictures out to decorate my room as a student. 'The Rattle Bag' has a note on the title page:

Jamestown Rd - corner - blue/glass - opposite - white terrace - for sale - end one - 10.00 Fri - fair haired/beard

Presumably this was an important message once upon a time, but who knows what the rendez-vous with the bearded man was about? Old books - the kind that have really been used by their owners, rather than stuck on shelves - often have strange little notes in them, to go with the bookplates. We'll come back to the art of the bookplate, but for now there are some lovely examples on the Letterology blog - old and new.

1 comment:

  1. Shock of the new is a great history book. Perhaps you teachers thought it not dry and boring enough! I only answered questions on subjects never covered at school and if I had not wasted time reading all the questions actually covered in my GCSE course I would have passed...

    I cannot bring myself to deface a book but hundreds line my shelves "corrected" by my partners father. He signed and dated the acquisition of every book which he acquired...