October 19, 2016

Day of the dedications


(photo: @sfpubliclibrary Instagram 15 September)


Time for the book dedications of the year! Not written this year, or not necessarily, but the best I've come across this year. It's a tradition dating back to my very first post for Books in the City, in which -- with the whole world of books available to me as subject matter -- I chose to celebrate the art of the well-written book dedication. That tells you something about my affection for those little solitaires twinkling and winking at us from the centres of white pages.

I'm talking about the best dedications, of course, the ones that speak from the heart with the tongue of a writer, that neither surfeit us with lists (how did that start, those endless pages of acknowledgments in novels, for God's sake!) nor starve us of landmarks, the ones that, despite us knowing they are for a certain someone, we discover are magically also for us.

Here are this year's finds:

1.  Yuyi Morales in Thunder Boy Jr. 

To the Western Addition library in SF where, as a new mother and immigrant, I found my first home in the USA. Nancy, I hope you remember me. You changed my life forever when you put books in my hands.

A book dedication to a library! I had to start with this one. I've shared dedications to an author's typewriter, and to an airlines whose delayed flight inspired the book in question, but this is the first dedication to a library I've come across, via the San Francisco Public Library's Instagram feed @sfpubliclibrary (Western Addition is one of their branches).

As a librarian, I'm going to say that I'm sure Nancy remembers her.

The post went up as we were counting down to Banned Books Week, which was appropriate given that the author of Thunder Boy Jr is Sherman Alexie, whose The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian is one of the most challenged books in libraries in his country, the USA. The dedication in that semi-autobiographical work also makes a point about home: "For Welpinit and Reardan, my hometowns", it goes, the first being where Alexie grew up, on an Indian reservation in Washington State, and the second the town where he went to High School, his first time off the reservation.

Thunder Boy Jr is Alexie's first picture book, about a boy looking for a name of his own; Yuyi Morales is the illustrator.  Here's a short trailer from the publisher:

 



2. Gloria Steinem in My Life on the Road

Gloria Steinem was asked by her interviewer at the Auckland Writers Festival this year to talk about the dedication to her new memoir, My life on the road. "Shall I read it out loud?" she rejoined. "I don't want to assume everyone has read my book!"

Her reading of it made exactly my point: great dedications have it all there; they don't need to be commented on.

This book is dedicated to:
 Dr. John Sharpe of London, who in 1957, a decade before physicians in England could legally perform an abortion for any reason other than the health of the woman, took the considerable risk of referring for an abortion a twenty-two-year-old American on her way to India.
 Knowing only that she had broken an engagement at home to seek an unknown fate, he said, “You must promise me two things. First you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life".
 Dear Dr. Sharpe, I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death: I’ve done the best I could with my life. This book is for you.







3.  Jerome K Jerome in Idle thoughts of an idle fellow

After two new books, here's an old one, published in 1886. I knew about this dedication but for the longest time I was mixed up, thinking it was by Italo Svevo, so I could never find it. It could have been by Svevo, who had in common with Jerome K Jerome a love of what in Svevo's native Trieste was referred to with the Austrian term witze, meaning witty paradoxes and contradictions.

TO
THE VERY DEAR AND WELL-BELOVED
 FRIEND
OF MY PROSPEROUS AND EVIL DAYS--
TO THE FRIEND
WHO, THOUGH IN THE EARLY STAGES OF OUR ACQUAINTANCESHIP
 DID OFTTIMES DISAGREE WITH ME,
HAS SINCE BECOME
TO BE MY VERY WARMEST COMRADE--
TO THE FRIEND
 WHO, HOWEVER OFTEN I MAY PUT HIM OUT,
NEVER (NOW) UPSETS ME IN REVENGE--
TO THE FRIEND
WHO, TREATED WITH MARKED COLDNESS BY ALL THE FEMALE
 MEMBERS OF MY HOUSEHOLD,
AND REGARDED WITH SUSPICION
 BY MY VERY DOG, NEVERTHELESS SEEMS DAY BY DAY
 TO BE MORE DRAWN BY ME, AND IN RETURN TO
MORE AND MORE IMPREGNATE ME WITH THE
ODOUR OF HIS FRIENDSHIP--
TO THE FRIEND WHO NEVER TELLS ME OF MY FAULTS, NEVER WANTS TO BORROW
 MONEY, AND NEVER TALKS ABOUT HIMSELF--
TO THE COMPANION OF MY IDLE HOURS,
THE SOOTHER OF MY SORROWS,
 THE CONFIDANT OF MY JOYS AND HOPES--
MY OLDEST AND STRONGEST
PIPE,
THIS LITTLE VOLUME
IS GRATEFULLY AND AFFECTIONATELY
DEDICATED.


Italo Svevo also had a close relationship with tobacco, but in his case it was the cigarette, and in particular the last cigarette. In his book The confessions of Zeno, one of his alter ego Zeno's neuroticisms is to repeatedly smoke the last cigarette, in order to re-experience the joy of quitting. When Svevo was mortally injured in a car accident, he asked at the hospital if he could have a cigarette. His request was denied. Ah, he sighed, that really would have been the last cigarette. 

In addition to the dedication, Jerome K Jerome also wrote a fine preface for his book, which I would love to hear read out loud by John Cleese.

One or two friends to whom I showed these papers in MS. having observed that they were not half bad, and some of my relations having promised to buy the book if it ever came out, I feel I have no right to longer delay its issue. But for this, as one may say, public demand, I perhaps should not have ventured to offer these mere "idle thoughts" of mine as mental food for the English-speaking peoples of the earth. What readers ask nowadays in a book is that it should improve, instruct, and elevate. This book wouldn't elevate a cow. I cannot conscientiously recommend it for any useful purposes whatever. All I can suggest is that when you get tired of reading "the best hundred books," you may take this up for half an hour. It will be a change.



4. Tony Ross in Sticky ends: twenty-six cautionary verses with sticky ends 

To my dear mum and dad -- they always thought that I would come to one. T.R.





5. Ogden Nash in The Face is Familiar 

This collection of poems by the man who gave us "I never saw a purple cow..." and "If called by a panther, don't anther" is a treasure I found in the Central City Library basement. Although the book was first published in the USA in 1940, our copy is the Australian Edition of May, 1943, a fact which some librarian of the past underlined by recovering the book in wallpaper featuring red and blue stripes interspersed with golden crowns. Not that this would have been her only foray into book preservation. Recovering books in serviceable wallpaper was once a thing in public libraries. I imagine this librarian's ghost floating around in our basement checking up on all her handiwork.


Before disposing of the original cover, the librarian cut out the blurb on its flap and pasted it into the book, turning the book into a sort of time-capsule:

In re-issuing this book in an Australian edition, the publishers are confident that it will add considerably to the gaiety of this land at a time when our sense of humour is in danger of being submerged in a total war effort.

It goes on to cite a poem in the book, a dig at Japanese expansionist tendencies on the eve of Pearl Harbour, which the Australian publishers - how realistically I don't know - hoped the Australians would still be finding funny in 1943.

On the other hand, I myself found a comment apropos of Ogden Nash's death funny enough to note down - or maybe I actually came up with it? It's scribbled in my own hand next to my notes for this post. It'd be nice to think I could be so witty as to quip "Merde! Improperly prepared!" in reaction to learning that one of the most famous rhymers in the history of poetry died from eating improperly prepared coleslaw. Googling brings up nothing. If anyone knows the origin of this genial epigram, please let me know!

I was taking notes because I had discovered that a postage stamp honouring Ogden Nash made history by being the first US postage stamp to contain the word "sex"- "although as a synonym for gender", Wikipedia tells us. Whew!

"It appears under the letter O" the wikipedia pundit continues. With my librarian skills I was able to quickly unearth a reproduction of the stamp, just to check that fact. The pundit had it right.




But I could not believe my eyes when I saw the price of the stamp and realised that this could not have happened in the fifties as I had assumed. In fact, it turned out to be issued in 2002, on the centennial of Nash's birth! What, the word sex made history in 2002? Are we kidding?
                                  
The Amarillo, Texas newspaper article where I found this information contained, further along, a telling insight. The other set of new stamps to come out that year was "Discover Canada", highlighting popular tourist attractions. So, images of Foggy Cove and the Icefields Parkway and Buffalo Jump, vying for attention with Nash's racy poem "The Turtle".

The turtle lives 'twixt plated decks
 Which practically conceal its sex.
 I think it clever of the turtle
 In such a fix to be so fertile.


The dedication I found in the book, to Nash's wife, is not scandalous, antic or clever. It's sentimental, a bit reminiscent of the classic era poetry schoolboys of Nash's time (and of my father's, although he was a generation later) used to learn. "Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by..." But it's definitely going straight to the book dedication wall in my pool room.


For Francis

And now to settle for the years,
That flew like frightened birds;
As fee for ten of happiness
I offer ten of words.

 
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