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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."
The symbolism-rich bookplate of Charles de Gaulle

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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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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