The Endpapers Archive: The Other Stories within Books
It has been about five months since Endpapers featured its first post—on a book given to one administrator of Endpapers by another. Since then, Endpapers has grown to 77 posts, and though we admins keep adding to its pile, it’s been heartening to see people contribute every now and then, without too long a dry period in between. But first, some context:
Endpapers is a blog which is dedicated to book inscriptions. By inscription, we don’t mean anything that forms part of the original publication, but that which is added by an owner or giver of the book. It could be, ‘To Bubu, for brilliant results in ICSE. Love, Mashimoni.’ Or ‘Darling X, Here’s to a day and forever. Yours, Y.’ Or simply the owner’s name, a quiet assertion of possession. The three of us—Sujaan Mukherjee, Shalmi Barman and Anushka Sen—take in submissions from anyone who wishes to contribute, and put them up on the blog. For every book, there is an individual blogpost featuring bibliographic data and at least one image where the inscription is legible. The blog doesn’t state that you have to send both, but so far, all our posts have featured both information and pictures. On one occasion, we sat upon the bibliographic data for days while we tracked down the contributor on Facebook and requested her for an image while apologising for our stalking!
This gives some idea of what we focus on—which is to say, not one thing alone. While we are very interested in details about the book’s production, distribution and purchase, we do not want anyone to miss out on the visual thrill of seeing an inscription in a book. The paper quality (dependent on age among other things), the nature of the handwriting and ink, in some cases the accompanying doodles, all go into making the experience of discovery, and it is because we are unwilling to sacrifice any of this that we request our readers, both to fill up a google form (which helps us store the information in a format suitable for metadata) and to mail us the image separately.
The idea for the blog first came from conversations about secondhand books, which have a special hold over the imagination, and a most effective way of rousing the collector’s impulse. However, the blog is not restricted to secondhand books, because the inscription of a message, relationship or an identity into a book is of primary interest.
Though the term ‘endpaper’ refers to the mostly empty leafs of paper at the beginning and ends of books, the term on our blog has been stretched to include marginalia. Likewise, though we do prioritise direct, handwritten inscriptions over everything else, we have on occasion featured sticky-notes with personalised messages in handwriting and print. Scroll’s article on Endpapers gives a fuller account of the features on it, exploring the conveniences and limitations of using a WordPress blog for a project like this. Here, we thought we would go a little deeper into our experience of running it.
When we started Endpapers, we were not very sure of what its major draw was for most people. We did conceive of it as an archival project, and from the very beginning were interested in the cultural and contextual significance of what we hoped to collect and preserve. Yet, as we’ve suggested above, a large part of our interest in inscriptions was and is affectual, stemming either from the potency of personal memory or the slightly fanciful empathy we feel with book-owners or givers we’ve never known. The range of people—from our parents to Eyezine—who have shown enthusiasm for Endpapers, suggests that the appeal of inscriptions does indeed communicate itself in all its hues to a fairly wide crowd.
A sentiment that never seems too far away from Endpapers is nostalgia—that questionable but deep-seated love for faded edges, often inescapable in the face of intimate associations. A number of people, including ourselves, have had the following experience: Prompted by a desire to contribute to Endpapers, we began browsing corners of our personal libraries which had long remained untouched, and in the process, uncovered books we hadn’t seen in years, and through them, memories of people, occasions, feelings, that came back with surprising vibrancy. In many cases, family members excitedly joined the game and fished out moth-eaten, yellowing books which they hoped the internet could save from an eventual disappearance. Hence our families are perhaps far more of a presence on Endpapers than in other online spaces we inhabit, and many of our posts talk about gifts given to parents at weddings, to us by aunts and uncles when we were young, and such like.
Sometimes the nostalgia is not just at an individual level, but about an entire kind of literature altogether. Recently, there has been quite a bit of discussion on children’s literature from Russia (and other parts of the then Soviet Union) that our parents’ generation grew up reading, and which some of us remember discovering in our family libraries. Of late, a lot of these Soviet books for children have also surfaced at the secondhand bookstalls in Golpark. Wondering if all of this pointed towards an increasing homelessness of these books, we were moved to buy some and feature a few on Endpapers. So far we have three on display—a book on animals and two collections of fairytales. We hope they represent in some measure the great charm of Soviet illustrations, and the appeal of stories which seem so familiar, and yet are steeped in a culture so different from their far more pervasive Anglo-American counterparts.
But enough about nostalgia. A rather different and equally obvious source of excitement on Endpapers is author inscriptions, obviously so when the author is a known literary name like Tarapada Ray, and also when an unexpected signature, like that of actor Dev Anand, finds its way to us. Star value aside, a peek at the personal when available, seems to offer a privileged insight into the minds and relationships of these signatories. When Mulk Raj Anand signs off as ‘Uncle Mulk’ on a flyleaf, a familial persona is superimposed upon the rather grandiose figure of the author.
Another kind of favourite post was that which evoked familiar and homely practices of Bengali communities. Take for instance, a volume of Teni-da stories inscribed by ‘Gogol (1)’: submitter Sroyon Mukherjee writes that the numbering was used to distinguish between two boys in his neighbourhood, both of whom carried the nickname ‘Gogol’. Another book which drew attention is given to a grandchild by one ‘Dida (Kalighat)’ in 1965. The dida (grandmother) identifies herself with a casual place-name in parenthesis; i.e. she is the dida of Kalighat. Many of our readers have a number of relatives who thrive in our consciousness, and for each relation, there are numerous personae. Though quite unassuming on the surface, this inscription probably drew a few smiles of recognition and amusement.
One characteristic of Endpapers is that while we feature books from all countries and in all languages, a majority of the submissions we receive are books that were bought and read by Indians. Details such as this A. H. Wheeler stamp on a copy of The Plague might gently point to local, context-specific practices—in this case, the sale of books at Indian railway platforms. In fact, it is hard to say if one single factor earned this post a lot of views, because we suspect Camus and trains would be quite evenly poised in a popularity contest when it comes to many of our readers.
While quirky inscriptions and author-signed copies are certainly popular, we are committed to collecting material indiscriminately. It would be a real shame if people checked themselves from submitting something that seemed commonplace but might have acquired value in a changed context, and for this reason, we try not to project any sort of image that might predetermine what kind of posts are ‘valuable.’
If we are to give some idea of how we envision Endpapers in the future:
We hope we can make it easier for contributors to make a submission to Endpapers. Ideally, it should be possible to combine the image with the bibliographic details while sending them.
We’d like to see the tags develop further and reveal interesting patterns. For now, ‘Kolkata’ seems to be the biggest tag in the cloud, which is not surprising. ‘Author inscription’ also looms large over its neighbours, and ‘Golpark’ has yielded a bigger stock than ‘College Street’, which is also fairly predictable to those who’ve gone prowling for secondhand books in Kolkata in recent years.
We’d certainly like to see more of local languages. Despite the weakness for intimations of Bengali culture as discussed above, Bengali books are still distinctly outnumbered by English. Of course we don’t want a single regional focus either and more books/inscriptions in Indian languages apart from Bengali would be greeted with major enthusiasm. This would also imply a wider readership, and guarantee a distance from the pitfalls of clique culture. Speaking of which, we’ve set ourselves the slightly absurd rule that we, i.e. the admins of Endpapers, can’t post about any book we’ve received as a gift till that book is at least a year old. Which makes one or two of us a little nervous, because a year is such a long time and who knows where we’ll be by the end of this one? But wherever we are, we hope to keep the ‘Old Friends/Bookends’ partnership going, and for this, as with so many things these days, we have no choice but to place our faith in the internet.