The first house I owned was quite small, but it came with a wonderfully mysterious basement. Among the treasures housed therein was a wringer washer, a green metal cabinet that opened with a deliciously coffin-like squeal and a collection of textbooks that belonged to a previous owner. These included "The Elements of Railroad Engineering" (1908) by William G. Raymond, "A Treatise on Masonry Construction" (1910) by Ira Osborn Baker and "Mechanics of Materials" (1909) by Mansfield Merriman.
Aside from the fact that Mansfield Merriman is an enticing name, these books were not the kind that typically would catch my eye. But carefully inscribed in the upper right-hand corner of the first page of each one, in letters so elegant and precise as to suggest substantial premeditation and an admirably steady hand, were these words: "Edwin O. Kaul/Tech '12."
A century ago, Edwin O. Kaul was a civil engineering student at what was then known as Carnegie Tech — now Carnegie Mellon University. And these were his books. Because of the inscriptions, the books went from being blocks of yellowing paper precariously held together by fading brown covers to objects of fascination and great poignancy.
I could imagine Kaul sitting at his desk late at night, frowning in deep concentration at a line such as this, which opens "The Elements of Railroad Engineering": "The horizontal alignment of the center line of a railroad consists of straight lines called tangents, connected by curves to which the straight lines are tangent." It may not be "Call me Ishmael," but it does the job.
Inscriptions in books may range from the owner's name and perhaps a date and place — such as that favored by the no-nonsense Kaul — to florid and heartfelt messages added when the book is purchased as a gift. Sylvia Plath was fond of giving copies of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll to friends and adding this inscription: "Rx: To be taken in small doses at bedtime."
Some people enjoy collecting books that have been signed by the authors. While these books may gain in monetary value because of the creator's scribble, these inscriptions are usually on the lame and impersonal side. "With best wishes" and "Enjoy!" are typical of the genre.
Occasionally you can find, with the magnificently motley offerings in a used bookstore, a volume with an inscription so intensely personal as to make you feel like a peeping Tom just by reading it. I've blushed at inscriptions that promised eternal love, undying devotion and permanent fealty — all affixed to books that were eventually discarded by the objects of that passion, or by their heirs, as so much expendable junk.
In a beautiful red-and-gold embossed copy of an 1883 edition of "The Poetical Works of Wordsworth," purchased a decade ago for a measly three bucks, I found this inscription in gorgeously ornate handwriting: "Carrie J. Kelihard, Christmas, 1884." I can't help but imagine the surely long-deceased woman on a faraway Christmas morning, clutching the book in delight, and perhaps riffling the gold-tipped pages and happening upon these lines from "To the Daisy": "In youth from rock to rock I went,/ From hill to hill in discontent/ Of pleasure high and turbulent/ Most pleased when most uneasy;/ But now my own delights I make —/ My thirst at every rill can slake …"
Along with written inscriptions, people have been known to add information relevant to the book. In a first edition of Gertrude Stein's "Brewsie and Willie" (1946), I found newspaper clippings taped to the first several pages: a review of the book from The New York Herald Tribune, and Stein's 1946 obituary from The Philadelphia Inquirer. Rising along the inner edge of a page is this line from the book's original owner: "Farona Kovapak—Toledo—Santa Fe—November 4th—1946."
My grandmother, Mercedes Keller, used a small stamp to mark the first page of the books in her library: "M.M. Keller/Oak Ridge, TN" it read in part, and when I see that stamp today, many years after her death, on books such as a 1961 edition of "Prejudices: A Selection" by H.L. Mencken, I can envision her hand pressing down on that stamp and waiting impatiently for the ink to dry, so that she can get on with her reading. My grandmother did not go to college but had a fiercer hunger for reading than any literature professor I ever met.
And that is why the inscriptions that most move me aren't the fancy quotations or declarations of love, but the simple ones: names and dates. Writing your name in a book and the date upon which you acquired it is more than just an assertion of ownership. It is a milepost in time and space. It is a way of saying not only "I was here," but also, "I read this."
Gather up the books that bear your name, and you have an informal record of what you care about. Autographs are autobiographies.
Books, of course, eventually deteriorate — just as do their owners. When I look at Kaul's signature on "Railway Track and Track Work" (1909) by E.E. Russell Tratman, I remember the admonition of the late Arthur Miller, who once pointed out that to write a book is to realize that "one has carefully inscribed one's name on a block of ice on a hot July day." Everything melts in time. But for a brief moment — or so our inscriptions insist — these books mattered. And so, perhaps, did we.
JULIA KELLER, The Chicago Tribune's cultural critic, won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times