Grist from the Mill–April
Updated: Apr 21
Musings on Books and Writing by Kelt Wilska
Say you’re a bookseller hunting for rare titles in a dusty Berkshire attic. Creased paperback beach read: dollar section. Hardcover bestseller from the 90s: ehhh, maybe five bucks. Then you stumble upon a faded cloth cover . . . it’s an Ernest Hemingway! You go through your checklist. No major scuffing on the spine? Check. Pages free of splotching? Check. First edition? Check. This is a good find for sure. But is it signed? The difference between a yes and no could be tens of thousands of dollars.
Why do we treasure signed books? And don’t just say, “Because they’re worth a lot of money.” Dig deeper. That’s not why you keep an inscribed Hemingway on the bookshelf next to your fireside reading chair. You keep it to pull it off the shelf once in a while and simply flip to that front page. You keep it to retrace the name in your mind and imagine where he signed it. Maybe at his shaded tropical retreat in Havana, perhaps at his mountain-view abode in Idaho before his untimely passing? A quick scrawl on a page is a tunnel through time to infinite stories.
Since the rise of the eBook, there has been an attempt from the industry to accommodate digital signatures. Sometimes they are inscribed via stylus. Sometimes they are added to a picture taken with the author at an event and then downloaded into your eBook file. Not feeling the personal connection? That could be why the digital signature has largely fallen flat. Nothing beats pen on paper. One of the titles on our shelves at Shaker Mill Books aptly embodies this inherently human connection. When the renowned author and type designer Bruce Rogers accidentally pricked his finger on a pen while signing the book and a drop of blood fell on the page, he added to the inscription something along the lines of “See! I bled for you!” Whether it’s blood, ink, or maybe a coffee ring, we have come to cherish these unique portals to another time and place—one thin page separating us from gifted writers and the lives they lived between the lines.