Tag Archives: Ben Hur

Old books can be the best books

If you’ve read my other posts, you might already know I have an affinity for books over other mediums for story-telling. I particularly like hardcovers, but it’s not a requirement for me to read it. The allure is simply having the paper in my hands. I’m not much of a collector of anything anymore, but I will occasionally pick up a book to add to my small pile of stories I like to read now and then.

I am in possession of several books that belonged to my Great-Grandmother. As a child, I remember at her house a literal floor to ceiling built-in book shelf that towered over the console television in her living room. It was full of old tomes from her childhood up to mine. Some were leather bound and well-worn. Some were newer books with modern dust jackets. Some were small paperbacks. It contained a full works of Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe to The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew for young readers. One day, as an adult, I started thumbing through a few of the ones I still have and discovered something I didn’t remember seeing before.

She had gone through and written her name in some of them. Some were inscribed to her from friends. Some were inscribed to others in the family and some were inscribed by the authors themselves. How could I have missed this before? How could I not have noticed this in all those years as a little boy looking through books I couldn’t even read yet? Suddenly that dusty old volume had a new point of interest. Who owned it before? Who was it a gift from? Not all of them had it but some did. Now it became a hunt to see how many I could find.

This book was a gift to my Great-Grandmother from her long-time family doctor’s wife, who also happened to be her backyard neighbor.

I found quite a few with names I didn’t recognize, or from people she must have known that I’ve now forgotten. Some are from relatives who passed long before me. One of my personal favorites is depicted below. The book is called Poems of the South by Col William Lightfoot Visscher. When I cracked this book open, I was amazed at what I found. It was a trove of its own history.

Inside the cover was an index-like card containing a quote dated June 19, 1923 by Frank Murray that reads “Judicious silence is much better than truth spoken without charity”. The handwriting, after comparison with other writings, belongs to my 2nd Great-Grandfather John Baskerville. On the next blank page inside the cover is an inscription from him to his son, my Great-Grandfather, Jim Baskerville. The on the opposite page is an inscription to John from the author himself, whom he refers to as “Col Visch”.

Inside cover inscription written by my 2nd Great-Grandfather, John Baskerville
Poems of the South and Other Verse by Col William Lightfoot Visscher. The author’s inscription reads: My Dear John Baskerville, I would not fear to wager something valuable that you can find times in this book that will clutch at your old Virginia heart. This because I wrote them from a heart that warms at the thought of the dear old south of the day, when you and I were young. Anyhow, I send you the book with the best wishes that I have on tap, and at this writing the memory of pleasant hours in your company, being of unusual congeniality. Cordially, Wm. Lightfoot Visscher, Chicago, January 1, 1922.
Author’s obituary, dated February 11th, 1924

It seems they were friends at some time and must have had a journey together, or at the least, they were more than just a passing acquaintance. The penmanship of the author is exquisite and his words flow right off the page. I can almost hear the Kentucky drawl he undoubtedly had while I read it. People don’t talk (or write) like that much anymore. It wasn’t until months after finding the inscriptions in the front that I found the author’s obituary in the back, which for me, painted the rest of a story I might not otherwise have ever known.

Last month I had the pleasure to meet Mrs. Lynne Tolley. Her name may not strike a bell, but I can promise you her famous uncle’s does. She came to speak at a luncheon about him and her experience being related to the most famous whiskey-maker in the world, Mr. Jack Daniel. She is his Great-Grandniece and still works at the Jack Daniel distillery, about 20 miles from where I am now sitting. While having lunch with her, we talked about all sorts of things before the subject turned to family heirlooms. I assumed being in the position she was in the Daniel lineage, she would have some significant items. I was right about that.

Among the many things she has that passed down from him through the family, one particular item stood out to me. She has a first edition of Ben-Hur, published in 1880 written by Lew Wallace. That alone is a valuable item, however, what else was in it makes it even more valuable and unique. Jack Daniel inscribed his copy with his signature in four different places in the book, as well as some other notes. It’s obvious by his note in the back cover it was valuable to him as well.

Ben-Hur First Edition, owned by Jack Daniel. Photo courtesy of Lynne Tolley.
Ben-Hur First Edition, owned by Jack Daniel. Photo courtesy of Lynne Tolley.
Inside cover inscription. I love the way he talks about the day. He must have really liked this book! Ben-Hur First Edition, owned by Jack Daniel. Photo courtesy of Lynne Tolley.
Rear cover inscription. Ben-Hur First Edition, owned by Jack Daniel. Photo courtesy of Lynne Tolley.

Next time you see an old book laying around, don’t judge it by the cover. Take a look inside. It may have more of a story to tell than just the title on the binding.