One of the questions we get asked a lot, and more so since we have started our monthly Q&As with our Patrons, is ‘what’s your favourite book you’ve ever handled in the shop?’
Obviously, this is a question that is essentially impossible to answer, for reasons or both quantity and memory. However, there is obviously something extra about signed books. A customer was in the shop recently talking about how they had been disappointed when buying a special signed edition of a new book, by an author they were fond of, only to discover that the signature was on a bookplate. A variation of this is when there is an extra signed page bound into the book. In both cases I think the disappointment stems from the likelihood that the author themselves had never been near this particular copy.
So when thinking about books with a bit of ‘extra’ I am thrown back to books which are properly signed by the author. Copies of books which have been in the hands of the author themselves. So here are three books we have handled in the last year or so which have that little extra.
Darkest Africa by H. M. Stanley.
Stanley is best known really for the did-he didn’t-he line of “Dr Livingstone I presume” when he finally found the elusive explorer and missionary who hadn’t been heard from for months. His own book on his explorations is a two volume affair of which this is just one volume sadly. Also, this copy was rescued from some really bad storage where it has been significantly damaged. Nonetheless, despite almost being thrown away, it was saved at the last moment for having a letter inside, handwritten, from Stanley himself, gifting the book. It is fun to note the headed paper has the title of the book “Darkest Africa” in a little graphic at the top. There was something quite thrilling about a book like this despite its condition as it brings you so close to the actual person.
Bound Sheet Music by Franz Liszt.
Bound volumes of Victorian era sheet music are ten-a-penny in the book trade. This unremarkable-looking volume appeared at first glance to be exactly one of those. The presence of a photograph of the composer is perhaps the thing that made someone just take a second look. On the edges of some of the music in a ridiculously scruffy hand, Liszt had signed two of the pieces to the same person Mm. Helbig, and further investigation uncovered an inscription on the inside of the binding that gave more provenance. Helbig appears to have been a woman who was big in the artistic and musical salons of Italy and knew Liszt in the later years of his life. There are also a couple of annotations describing when and where he played this piece, suggesting that he may have played the piece from that actual copy and then signed it and given it to his host at the salon. Again, a few scrawled lines that make a book into something much more magical, something that brings us into close contact, almost physically, with a towering artist like Liszt.
Pages from the Journal of an Author by Dostoyevsky.
I think this has to be my current favourite ‘discovery.’ The book itself was a dull copy of a title by Dostoyevsky I wasn’t very familiar with. I was about to pass on it when I thought I would just check to see if this was the first English language edition. It turned out that it was, but even so, it was only worth a very moderate £20-30. Then I noticed that there was an inscription and that it seemed the book was signed by the translator Koteliansky. This, I thought, made it reasonably interesting to someone with a passion for Dostoyevsky perhaps: I was warming to this book. The inscription though seemed very familiar “To Lawrence and Frieda”… I’m ashamed to say it took me a quick google search to realise that he meant D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda. In fact, it turns out that Koteliansky was a Ukrainian translator of Russian classics who, for a number of years was besties with D. H. Lawrence. This takes us one step beyond just a signed book into the realms of what bookseller’s call ‘association copies’. That is, books which are, in themselves, evidence of an association between two people, usually one of them being the author. On top of that, here was a book in my hand, which had once been in the hand of D. H. Lawrence.