Having pre-booked an event on ‘ association copies ‘ at a book fair, not knowing exactly what this would entail, I was looking forward to a scholarly disquisition on the subject ranging over the centuries, from the sixteenth to the twentieth. Perhaps I’d be shown association copies containing comments and marginalia by genuinely important figures such as Charles Darwin or Samuel Johnson, or perhaps J.M.W Turner or Oscar Wilde. So imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the event would consist of one of the dealers visiting three of the stalls at the Fair, including his own, and picking out a book from each of the stalls to illustrate the three type of ‘association’ copies. O, well, I thought, the three young people who had also booked looked excited by the prospect, so perhaps I’d wait to see what might happen.
The first type of association copy, we were told, was when a book bore the signature of a famous person, plain and simple. No presentation and no annotations, just the signature on a flyleaf, or whatever. In this case it was the signature of the future George V on a book about the monarchy. So far, so boring. Our guide moved on .The next type of association copy, we were told, was one containing an inscription presented by someone associated with the book in question . In this case it was the illustrator Arthur Rackham inscribing a book he had illustrated to someone close to him. I can’t remember who this was. The third and last type, and in theory, the most appealing, was a book containing a comment of great interest by its author on someone to whom it had been presented. In this case it turned out to be a very barbed comment by the bitchy Republican showbiz ‘ celebrity gossip’ and failed actress Hedda Hopper ( aka Elda Furry ) on her arch enemy, the liberally-minded Democrat and gifted actress Olivia de Havilland .I cannot recall the actual words used by Mrs Hopper, but they undoubtedly elevated the art of sarcasm to a new level of bitchiness. Unlike the other two association copies, I did find this particular one appealing, in a rather perverse way, but was less impressed by the four figure price attached to it, especially as both protagonists are rather forgotten figures today.
I found all this focus on twentieth century ‘ association ‘ copies by our dealer-guide distinctly unexciting and this was compounded by the seeming lack of interest he showed in my own anecdote concerning the great sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss ( a son of East Dereham, Norfolk, along with fellow sci-fi veteran Lionel Fanthorpe, which is in itself a mighty coincidence, but that’s another story). After I’d interviewed this very friendly and likeable man at his home in Oxford, I summoned up the courage to ask if he’s sign my copy of his first book The Brightfount Diaries with a retrospective inscription to me. Knowing by now that he had a rather subversive sense of humour , I felt he wouldn’t refuse—and I was right. So it came about that this presentation copy to me of his first book was dated 1988 instead of 2002. I think, like me, he was amused by the prospect of a future biographer coming across this book and being confused or intrigued by the inscription in it. This raises the question. How may other presentation copies have retrospective signatures? Answers on a postcard please.
I was reminded of all this when I discovered in Austin Dobson’s A Bookman’s Budget (1917) that a fascination for association copies went back a long way. The biographer of the French astronomer and antiquary Peireskius maintained that ‘ if he had received by gift, or had Bought Books which had belonged to learned men , he esteemed them so much the more highly , by how much the fuller they were of such things , as they had inserted with their own handwriting…For he could never endure, that the least invention, or observation of any man, should be lost; being always in hopes, that either himself, or some other would be advantaged thereby’. Dobson himself owned a few association copies, including a copy of the works of John Philips signed by Thompson of the Seasons and Jorge de Manrique’s Coplas, which once belonged to Robert Southey.
R. M. Healey