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Dying cultural object of the day: the elegant bookplate

Posted by Christopher Shea  March 30, 2010 02:53 PM

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Bookplates, like books themselves, were once the province of the rich and so tended to feature aristocratic flourishes, like coats of arms. They have been radically democratized--chains like Barnes and Noble sell mass-produced examples you can slap into the latest Patterson thriller. For high-born and low-born book owners alike, however, their meaning is the same, writes the Globe's Alex Beam, in the Yale Alumni Magazine: "Think of a bookplate as a wedding ring binding the reader to the book, and vice versa."

Yale has one of the world's largest collection of bookplates, numbering as many as a million, from florid handprinted examples dating to the 15th century to designs donated by eccentric modern bibliophiles. But the collection is a jumble, and its treasures have largely gone unexplored. The university is beginning a cataloging process that could take a decade.

Meantime, its alumni magazine offers a brisk tour. I found the modern examples more striking than the coats of arms. Highlights include Charles de Gaulle's striking plate, featuring the Cross of Lorraine, the symbol of the Free French, crushing a Nazi swastika with a V-for-victory; an Orwellian Nazi sample ("The times live in books," from the library of someone who embraced book-burning); and manifold examples of the "Return my book or else!" genre. One Carl H. Getz went so far as to have himself portrayed in cartoon form guillotining a malfeasant  borrower.

Whither the bookplate in the age of the e-reader? "Electronic bookplates?" Beam writes. "I don't think so."
 degaulle.jpg
The symbolism-rich bookplate of Charles de Gaulle

guillotinebook.jpg
The fraught nature of book-borrowing is a common theme in the Yale collection


(Unrelated, to say the least. Here's a pop-science headline for you, from the same issue of the magazine. "Quack Means Quack: The female duck has a few tricks up her, well, vagina." Egad.)
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