Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Mystery of the Old Inscription

Author Jean Waldschmidt wrote a juvenile mystery, Mystery of the Old Thorndyke, that was published in 1955 by Thomas Nelson & Sons. And she left a mystery in one copy of this book with an inscription that at first glance appears to be some kind of bizarre shorthand or unfamiliar foreign language.

Closer inspection reveals that a mirror is required to decipher this message, unless you're adept at reading backwards.

"To Foster, without whose help this book would never have been written."

And then Waldschmidt signed her name in a legible left-to-right "Love to you both, Love Jean," which became illegible in the mirror image above, along with the rest of the left-to-right writing.

Leonardo and lefties. I learned from a bit of research that the practice, or art, of this kind of writing can be traced at least as far back as the 1500s to Leonardo da Vinci. Also, there is a name for it--mirror writing. Further, mirror writing may have evolved from left-handed writers (da Vinci was a southpaw), who had an easier time writing across the page right to left without smearing the ink as the writing hand dragged across the page in the process.

As for the mystery in the story... Someone is trying to stop a couple of teenage boys from helping with the demolition of an old Western pioneer hotel in Nevada. As they investigate who and why, they get caught up in solving an 85-year-old mystery in the old place.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Bookplate on the fly

You've been given a new book and you're all out of bookplates. What to do?

No worry, just write your own ex libris.

That's what one recipient did below in his copy of Will and Ariel Durant's The Age of Louis XIV.

He also indicated the gift givers.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

President Johnson and the problems in the world

It's 1968 and you want a clear understanding of the problems in the world. All you have to do is read No Retreat from Tomorrow: President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1967 Messages to the 90th Congress.

At least, that's what a Jamestown, Tennessee grandfather thought when he read this book and passed it onto his grandchildren with the following inscription inside the front cover:
Today I received this book from President Johnson and I wanted you to have it.
Read it carefully and I am sure you will have a better understanding of all the problems in the world today.  

What isn't clearly understood from these words is whether that "clear understanding" results from Johnson's articulation of the world's pressing issues or from his policies that may be contributing to them.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Gambler's Caveat and Gratitude

Here are a couple of unusual reader inscriptions found within a few pages of each other. 

In a copy of The Greatest Gamblers: An Epic of American Oil Exploration, by Ruth Sheldon Knowles (McGraw-Hill, 1959), the book's owner first felt it necessary write a brief inscription to the borrower, reminding him that the book was expected back.

To: Dr. Hood (but not for keeps), Jim

I've never seen a book with a "loan note" in it like this. Was there something implicit in the book's title that rendered the loan a gamble? Was there a precedent for this with Dr. Hood? Or was Jim merely eliminating any ambiguity associated with presenting his book to Dr. Hood?

Regardless, this reader inscription  tells us that Jim valued this book and wanted it to stay in his collection.

The owner of the book, Jim, soon reveals that he is one of the gamblers in the title and contents of the book. About three pages later, the author's dedication reads as follows:

To all the unsuccessful explorers who
have drilled America's 300,000 dry holes
and whose failures have guided others 
to the discovery of an abundance of oil, 
I dedicate this book with gratitude 
and admiration for their courage, venture-
someness, faith, persistence, and optimism.

Underneath the dedication, it appears that Jim has written his own expression of gratitude for the author's recognition. His reply reads simply, Thank you, JGS.

I've never seen this before, either--a reader's written response to a book's dedication. One could (and probably should) assume that a sarcastic thanks is inferred, given the context of the dedication and further assumption that Jim was one of the wildcatters who drilled a dry hole or two.

Perhaps this gambler was just hedging his bet when he loaned this book to his friend or colleague, Dr. Hood, with the caveat "not for keeps" to ensure it was returned.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Jimmy's Grandfather and Lou Gehrig

There's a precedent for my acquiring this kind of book--a biography of Lou Gehrig with an inscription inside indicating how much the Yankee slugger was admired by the book's owner. See Book Shrine to a Baseball Hero.

In this case, the book's owner apparently didn't own the book all that long as it was given to his grandson.

But it's what went with the book that is the real treat in the written message--a baseball bat signed by Lou Gehrig and other Yankees!

Here's the inscription from a grandfather to his grandson:

Click on the image to enlarge it.

In these few lines penned in the upper corner inside the front cover, an old man reveals a wonderful bit of history about himself as a kid and his love of baseball, the Yankees, and, in particular, Lou Gehrig. And those larger-than-life heroes of the diamond didn't sign just any bat. They signed a bat that Grandfather Jim made himself when he was a boy.

This cherished souvenir from the boy's hero would sadly grow all the more important to him, as we know that Gehrig's career and ultimately his life were cut far too short.

At age 36, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS for short, or "Lou Gehrig's Disease," as it has been more commonly known for decades. A few weeks shy of his 38th birthday, the man nicknamed the Iron Horse for his durability, succumbed to the cruel disease.

I can only guess when young Jim got his homemade bat signed. As Babe Ruth's name is not mentioned, it's quite possible the bat was signed after Ruth was gone, 1934, and before the early part of the 1938 season when Gehrig could no longer play ball.

How crushed must Jim have been to see his hero mysteriously fall so fast from his high performance standards. And how devastating it must have been to learn of his disease and slowly realize he would never play again. And then the heartbreaking, inevitable conclusion to his rapid decline--death on June 2, 1941.

That Jim would buy this book some 60 years after meeting Lou Gehrig and acquiring his signature along with some of his teammates' signatures gives testimony to the fact that he remained a lifelong fan of his childhood idol.

I can't understand how the book, with that wonderful inscription, wound up in a resale shop, knowing how much Gehrig meant to the grandfather. But there's a number reasons that could have happened.  I can only hope the bat didn't suffer the same fate!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Writing to Jacqueline Kennedy

In 1961, a few months after her husband was inaugurated as the 35th President of the United States, Jacqueline Kennedy, the new First Lady, supposedly received the book below, along with a letter from the author and annotations or marks in the book and on the jacket for emphasis and direction to selected passages.

In May of 1961, British journalist and author, George Bilainkin, sent an inscribed copy of his 1947 book, Second Diary of a Diplomatic Correspondent to the new president's wife in advance of her and the President's trip abroad, which included a stop in London.

He also included a typed, signed letter on his letterhead ("To Her Excellency, Mrs. John Kennedy") and indicated a few pages of interest to the First Lady and perhaps the new President, whom he had known and met with on several occasions in 1945 at the close of World War II.

So he knew Jack, as he referred to him, but he sent the book to his wife with marked passages about his dealings with her husband. His reason? 
"I send it because the book contains references to the talks your husband and I had in London in 1945. I hope some of the flash-backs may prove of instructive interest."
Bilainkin expressed his hopes to meet with both, or at least the First Lady, and revisit a few sites pertinent to his meetings, as a journalist, with a young Jack Kennedy in 1945. He also knew the President’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., when he was the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Indeed, in his written inscription in the book, he refers to himself as "an all-weather friend of the Kennedy clan."

But then the real reason for the inscribed book and letter appears to surface, as Bilainkin makes known his desire to take Mrs. Kennedy (he doesn't mention Jack) to lunch and, as if that weren't enough, further requests she bring photos of herself, her husband, and his parents! 

I think one could make the case that Bilainkin was a bit enamored of the First Lady, as was most of the world at that time, and he was using his prior acquaintance with the President to wrangle a lunch date with her. It very well could have been purely for professional reasons, as was a correspondent who wrote about high profile people, and a sit-down with Jackie Kennedy would have been quite a coup for him. 

The Kennedys, on their first trip overseas, while in the White House, went to Paris, Vienna, and London. They were in London June 4-5, 1961 and it seems all but impossible that they had the time or desire to meet with a journalist whom the President had crossed paths with in 1945. Certainly, it was never a consideration. But I wonder if Bilainkin even received a reply to his request?

For the First Lady of the United States of America, from an old admirer and all-weather friend of the Kennedy clan.
George Bilainkin  May 1961
It is unknown, though, if Jacqueline Kennedy actually received this book, looked through it, and showed the author’s marked passages to the President (pages noted under the inscription above and in the Index). It may have been intercepted by whatever filters were in place at the time for the abundance of gifts the Kennedys likely received at the White House.

But it is intriguing to ponder that this book could have been in the possession of one or both for a time. They left no ownership marks nor annotation behind to confirm that. The book eventually found its way into a Washington, D.C. estate and later into the second-hand market with letter intact.

On its own merit, this book is an interesting history from a diplomatic correspondent’s point-of-view at the end of World War II. His intimate portraits of heads of state he met, such as Tito, de Gaulle, Churchill, and diplomats such as the aforementioned Kennedy, fill the pages of this follow-up to his 1940 published diary.

But it's the inscription and letter to First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, and the speculation that she or President Kennedy kept this on the White House bookshelves for awhile, that makes this particular copy even more interesting.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Eudora Welty: A stepping stone to greater things

When Selected Stories of Eudora Welty was introduced into Random House's Modern Library series in the 1950s, one man saw in that collection the potential to effect a change in another's life for "greater things." He purchased a copy and inscribed it to a a friend or relative or lover, known only to us as SAR (or is that SAK?), and forgotten to history. Either way, the sentiment is the same for an aspiring writer or scholar.

"With the hope that this will be a stepping stone to greater things."

Monday, June 17, 2013

Thoreau's annotated copy of Walden

I don't know how long this link will be available, but the video is worth a look while it's around on the Internet: http://ow.ly/m6SdX

Professor Gould of Middlebury College in Vermont talks about Thoreau's copy of his book, Walden, which she retrieves from the college's archives and shares with viewers in this interview. Her comments on Thoreau's marginalia underscore the scholarship inherent in such an historically important copy of this book.

But there's also a certain thrill-factor, which Professor Gould captures perfectly in her closing words:
"It's just glorious to be able to hold it in your hands because Thoreau held it in his hands, he made the notes, and it's as close to history as you can possibly get."

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Book Shrine to a Baseball Hero

Readers interacting with their books is one thing--a margin note, perhaps some underlining. Readers turning their books into shrines is another thing entirely. And that is how I would characterize what happened with a copy of Lou Gehrig: The Iron Horse of Baseball, by Richard G. Hubler (Houghton Mifflin, 1941).

The young man who owned this book in the early 1940s held his baseball hero, Lou Gehrig, in the highest regard. He turned Hubler's book into a scrapbook memorial of newspaper clippings, baseball card cut-outs, and handwritten commentary. Hubler's text takes a backseat as a biographical narrative that complements the visual elements of this kind of folk book art.

After looking through every page of this book, I would surmise that Lou Gehrig transcended the sport of baseball in hero status for that young man and became a great role model as a human being.

Gehrig died 15 years before I was even born, but he still became my baseball hero when I was a boy. The first book I checked out and read at the school library was a title in the Childhood of Famous Americans Series: Lou Gehrig: Boy of the Sandlots, by Guernsey Van Riper (Bobbs-Merrill, 1949).

Had I been about age 10 when the Hubler book came out after Gehrig's untimely death at age 37, I could see me doing something like what the young man did with this book back in the 1940s. My kindred spirit from another time. Whether destiny or serendipity, or both, I had to buy this book when I found it. I'll let the pictures below tell the story with a bit of annotation.

The cut-outs of Gehrig's head and signature, which decorate many pages of this book, including all chapter heads, were taken from old 1934 Goudey baseball cards (I shudder to think about certain valuable cards being destroyed!). See this 2009 article from Sports Collectors Daily for more information.

Here, the book owner mixed real life and Hollywood together with images of Lou Gehrig and actress Teresa Wright, who played his wife Eleanor (Twitchell) in the movie Pride of the Yankees. He was also careful to document his arrangement.

A memorial poem attributed to Tim Cohane is copied on the blank page facing the Foreword's first page, while the Foreword receives its own decoration in the form of a typewritten list titled, Characteristics of Lou Gehrig.

The Foreword ends with a collection of baseball greats important to Gehrig (Bill Dickey, Joe McCarthy, Miller Huggins) as well as an image that is supposed to be the first base line at old Yankee Stadium. However, it looks like the third base line.

A bit of Gehrig philosophy follows--for life and hitting. Of course, his philosophy for life includes a baseball metaphor.

The most famous and memorable speech in baseball, perhaps even all of sports... "I may have been given a bad break but I've got an awful lot to live for. With all this, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

The final pages of the book are adorned with news clippings of Gehrig's death and memorial tributes. 

After the last chapter ends, the following page has a portion of the book's dust jacket (the front flap) affixed to it. Underlined is a passage that offers more evidence as to Gehrig's role-model status for the young fan: "...his clean life and high idealism."

I'll never know the name of the young man who owned this book (no ownership indication anywhere in the book) or what became of him in his life, but I'm grateful he took the time to create this memorial to Lou Gehrig and I bet he'd be pleased and proud to see that it lives on in another appreciative fan's collection and in a medium (Internet) he could never have envisioned some 70 years ago. I can only hope for the same once my tenure as custodian is done.


 As a bit of a postscript to all this... I got to enjoy a Yankees game at the old stadium several years ago before it closed. Appropriately enough, I sat on the first base side watching the "Ghost of Gehrig" at first base. Actually, the spirit of Gehrig was in full display as the Bronx Bombers knocked eight out of the park that night to tie a record. I enjoyed it all in a No. 4 Gehrig shirt.
No apologies to my Red Sox relatives, who wouldn't be caught dead in a Yankees shirt! 
I'm still a fan of the Bosox.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Mister Roberts... and Dave--a curious inscription

Thomas Heggens' Mister Roberts was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1946. The story was set on a US Navy cargo ship toward the end of World War II, based on the author's experiences during the war in the South Pacific.

The title character, Mister Roberts, was a junior officer who had the respect of his men and disdain for the captain, who had little regard for the crew. Roberts fought the captain for a transfer to the front lines to see some action before the war ended, eventually got his wish, and was killed in action.

I have a copy of the novel with the following curious gift inscription:
Here in detail are episodes in the lives of the men with whom you served on that Sunday afternoon of 8th April 1951.

And that has left me wanting for more detail. Who was Dave and what happened on April 8, 1951? Did Dave just serve one day with "these men?" On a ship? And at war? Or was this a reference to particular event during the course of a longer tour of duty by Dave?

I can find nothing of significance occurring on April 8, 1951 to relate to the characters and setting of Mister Roberts. The US military was fighting a war in Korea and General Douglas MacArthur was about to lose his command. But the specific date of April 8, 1951 is a riddle.

I'm guessing a good number of veterans could relate to the characters and situations in this book, Dave and the author of the inscription being just two examples of that sentiment. I'm assuming the inscription's author could relate on some level to have assumed that Dave would also. And the inscription became a device for introducing the book and evidently some wartime memories for its recipient.

The inscription itself is not dated, so there's no way of knowing when this used copy of the book was presented to Dave. If it were 1955 or later, no doubt Dave had heard of Mister Roberts the movie, if not the book. After being adapted as a play in 1948 Mister Roberts found new life in yet another medium as a 1955 film starring Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, and Jack Lemmon. The film was nominated for Best Picture and Lemmon won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.