More commonly in the past than now, child readers would inscribe their name and address on the flyleaf of a book adding “The World” or “Planet Earth” and ending with “The Solar System” and “The Universe.” This jokey pin-pointing of the book and its owner usually palls once adolescence is reached, but I notice that books bought by both of my parents in their youth tend to include an address as well as the owner’s name. My own book purchases as an undergraduate frequently included the university’s name as well as my own.
Did I imagine, then, that my location was somehow permanent?
Or did I merely want to fix my engagement with that particular book with a specific time and place? No need really—the flat-footed exegesis in the scrawled marginal annotations reveal the undergraduate hand and mind all too plainly. My urge to inscribe marks of ownership evidently faded with the passage of time. Hardly any of the hundreds of books I’ve bought in later adult life are even marked with my name.
My father, on the other hand, continued to pencil his name on the flyleaf of any newly acquired book throughout his life. But this practice wasn’t associated with possessiveness about the books themselves. I frequently availed myself of books from his collection during my years as a student. His Everyman two volume edition of Middlemarch testifies to the complexity of book ownership in the family during that time. He must have purchased it in the late 1950s, appending his customary penciled signature to both volumes. I scooped it up to use in my first year at university, penciling my own name over my father’s signature on the first volume and on the board paper of the second. My mother evidently imagined the book was likely to be coveted by other students and, while I was out for a walk, used an indelible marker to inscribe the board paper of both volumes with my name in inch-high letters. On the same occasion she took the opportunity to append my name in similarly large letters on the front cover of the Pelican edition of Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader and even on the foredges of The Second Common Reader, in each case using my initials and surname rather than the full name with which I usually signed. Her choice of site for the large-lettered imprint of ownership mimicked that of professional librarians who generally select “the inseparable portion of the artifact” –whatever part of the book which can’t be removed without catastrophic damage—for their library stamps. Librarians, however, favour discreet embossed stamps or institutional bookplates rather than giant cursive script made with a grocery marker. Half a century later, these “marks of ownership” with their fierce permanence makes these books seem not to belong to me but to exist in some other dimension.
Quite aside from the traces of contested ownership that such marks show, they testify to a relationship between reader and books that’s rapidly sliding into the past. The e-book in every reader’s hands remains indistinguishable from all its fellows and dissociated from the reader’s place on the planet.