Other People’s Books: Association Copies and the Stories They Tell

Introduction by G. Thomas Tanselle. Chicago: The Caxton Club, 2011. 214 pp. $75 (hardcover). ISBN 9790840550100.

This is an informative and immensely readable collection of the histories of fifty-two books “interesting through their association” (1). As defined by John Carter, an association copy is “a book which once belonged to, or was annotated by, the author; which once belonged to someone connected with the author, or someone of interest in his own right; or again, and perhaps most interestingly, belonged to someone peculiarly associated with its contents.”1

Members of the Caxton Club, an organization of book collectors, librarians and scholars, have been exploring the significance of association copies since 1896. At this time the club held an exhibition of such books, recorded for posterity in an illustrated Catalogue of an Exhibit of Books Interesting through their Associations. To this very early effort, Other People’s Books is a worthy successor.

Twenty-four of the books discussed herein are preserved in institutional collections, twenty-eight in private collections. The engaging entries are preceded by a thorough and insightful study of the subject by G. Thomas Tanselle.

The term “association copy” is infrequently used in everyday speech, even among special collections librarians and archivists, and very rarely, if ever, used by the news media. However, there is an association copy that has received international media attention since January 2007. To recapitulate: Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) requested the use of Thomas Jefferson’s own copy of the Quran for his swearing-in ceremony. The provenance of the Quran in question was impeccable, having been acquired by Congress directly from Jefferson in 1814. That the bespoke Quran actually belonged to one of the founding fathers of the United States has impacted the American consciousness, while fueling global discourse. Although very few of these discussions have employed the term “association copy” in reference to said Quran, it would appear that the book’s association was of the greatest significance. Inexplicably, there is no mention of Jefferson’s Quran in Other People’s Books.

To its credit, a number of unusual selections do appear, however, in the collection. The books are of English, American, Continental and Scandinavian origin, and date from 1470 to 1986. While books of the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries are well represented, only fifteen of the entries describe books printed before 1800. The volume contains 112 color illustrations of books of ornithology, literature, astronomy, history, literature, and much more.

For the sake of brevity, be advised that Other People’s Books presents a variety of bibliographic discourses, beginning with an incunable. Jill Gage (Newberry Library) introduces Bruce Rogers’s copy of Eusebius (Venice: Nicolas Jenson, 1470). While Rogers had no known association with the author (Eusebius died in 339 AD), Rogers greatly admired Jenson’s type, and utilized it as a model for his Montaigne type (an early version of the Centaur type). Earle Havens (Johns Hopkins) has contributed a remarkable description of a profusely annotated copy of Peter Martyr’s De Orbe Nouo Decades (Basel: Johann Bebel, 1533). Havens ably traces the provenance from 1942 back to the original owner, Richard Eden (ca. 1520-1576) who subsequently translated the book into English. Per Rålamb (private collector) discusses a particularly fortuitous acquisition of a long-lost volume from the library of Isaac Newton (45-49). The significance of the provenance of the book remained unknown to the proprietors of the unnamed antiquarian shop from which Rålamb purchased it.

Many books are of considerable American interest. Mark Dimunation (Library of Congress) writes of the first and only meeting between Walt Whitman and Henry Thoreau, in Brooklyn in 1856, as is attested in two books they inscribed to each other (106-109). It is not without interest that Dimunation was responsible for carrying Jefferson’s copy of the Quran to Rep. Ellison’s Congressional swearing-in ceremony. Thomas A. Horrocks (Houghton Library) relates the travels of Lincoln’s copy of Alexander Pope’s Poetical Works (Philadelphia: J.J.Woodward, 1839); it is well documented that Lincoln frequently cited Pope in speeches and letters (88-93).

Other “associations” are unapologetically sentimental, thereby improving our understanding of the authors. Paul T. Ruxin (private collector) describes the extraordinary circumstances of his purchase of a copy of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (London: W. Strahan et al., 1755). The two volumes contain presentation inscriptions in Johnson’s hand to Miss Hill Boothby, to whom he referred in correspondence as “My Sweet Angel” and “Dearest Dear,” but never married (54-58).

In conjunction with the publication of Other People’s Books, the Caxton Club and the Newberry Library held a symposium on March 19, 2011 entitled “Other People’s Books: Collecting Association Copies.” The symposium was well attended and included participants from England, Canada, and the United States. These two corresponding events proclaim with enthusiasm the potential research- and artifactual value of association copies. As a paradigm for teaching cultural history through book history, Other People’s Books is strongly recommended.

Michael Laird, The University of Texas at Austin

  • 1. John Carter, ABC For Book Collectors (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2004), 27.