Phil Clapham writes The Desert Island Bookworm, a regular column for The Beachcomber (Courtesy Photo).

Phil Clapham writes The Desert Island Bookworm, a regular column for The Beachcomber (Courtesy Photo).

Ghosts of Readers Past Can Haunt the Page of Old Books

There on this small sheet torn from a notebook was the echo of two lives lived long ago.

  • Thursday, February 25, 2021 10:15pm
  • Arts

By Phil Clapham

For The Beachcomber

Years ago, I was in Buddenbooks, the high-end — read “expensive” — rare bookstore in Boston, looking for a birthday present for a well-read friend.

While browsing through the stacks, I plucked off the shelf a large, ornately bound volume entitled Folk Songs, which proved to be an anthology of poetry. Published in 1861, it was decidedly Victorian in both its selection of poems and in the tasteful engravings which accompanied them; and it would, I thought, make a nice gift for my friend. But as I leafed through the pages, a piece of paper fluttered out. I stooped to pick it up, and found myself instantly enchanted: for on the paper, written in a careful hand in black India ink, was this plea:

Miss Kate

Please accept this token from your Valentine

February 14th, 1861

Now as my wife will tell you, I’m an absolute sucker for romance, and for the kind of unknowable story that this sweetly hopeful message from the previous century epitomized. Who was she, this young woman named Kate? Who was her suitor? Was he successful? Did they marry, have children, stay in love forever? Are there people alive today who are the descendants of that union?

We’ll never know; but there on this small sheet torn from a notebook was the echo of two lives lived long ago, two sentient beings who once breathed the world’s air as we do, who nurtured their own small hopes and dreams… two beating hearts long since stilled.

Needless to say, the friend didn’t get the book. It resides on my bookshelf, with the love note securely taped inside.

I love books with stories — not the tales in the pages themselves, but hints of those left by a book’s previous owners. Right next to Folk Songs on the same shelf is another little marvel: a copy of Nathaniel Bowditch’s Practical Navigator from 1851 (the same year, by the way, that Melville published Moby Dick). Born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1773, Bowditch was a mathematical prodigy, though he was indentured at the age of twelve as a bookkeeping apprentice.

By the age of 17, he had taught himself both calculus and Latin; the following year, he found and corrected thousands of errors in the then-principal text on maritime navigation. In 1802, he published the first edition of his Practical Navigator; remarkably, it is still carried aboard US naval vessels today.

The book that inspired this column (Courtesy Photo).

The book that inspired this column (Courtesy Photo).

My edition (the 20th) of this landmark text contains 556 pages of every conceivable table, formula and fact needed to be a master of navigation anywhere in the world. But what makes this copy special is the original owner: it belonged to Henry Starbuck, captain of the whaler Daniel Webster of Nantucket. This particular copy of Bowditch went around the world on a whaling ship, and scattered among the pages are Starbuck’s various notes made at sea. Since I’m in the whale business myself, I know from contemporary records that this vessel sailed around Cape Horn and up into the North Pacific, hunting primarily sperm whales there. She returned to Nantucket on July 15, 1856 after a voyage lasting almost four years.

Starbuck wrote his name, and that of his vessel, on the flyleaf; he dates the acquisition of the book as 1852, the year the Daniel Webster set sail for her long voyage. And on the following page, we find a heart-breaking note, also in his hand: Henry J. Starbuck – poor old man his time allmost over.

Memento mori… or, if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, Valar morghulis (“all men must die”).

I’ve written a few science books, and my rule has always been that income from their sales — since it derives from books, should go back into books. It’s a nice symmetry. With that in mind, and having some modest revenue to spend, I once wandered into Robert Frew, my favorite London bookseller, with a view to finding something to take home with me. The charming young assistant asked me what I was looking for, to which I replied that I didn’t really know… but that I liked books with backstories. Her face lit up. “Ah!” she said, smiling. “I’ve been waiting for someone like you!”

She reached up to a shelf and handed me a slim volume entitled Costumes d’Ivanhoe. It was exactly that – a series of ten hand-colored lithograph plates, some colored with gold, illustrating costumes for the various characters in Walter Scott’s novel. Pretty, but nothing I would have found particularly interesting. Except…

Laid into this volume are two sheets of high-quality paper on which was written a description (in French) of a costume ball, complete with guest list. The ball, we are told, was held in Brussels on Wednesday the 5th of February, 1823, and was hosted by the Prince and Princess of Orange. The guests were a distinguished lot and included barons, knights, military officers, and various women addressed as Lady this-or-that. Beside each name in the guest list is the character to which they were assigned; for example, Robin Hood was played by one Sir John Boyd, who came with “eight archers” including the Baron of Meyendorff, a Colonel Gardiner and the rather less impressive “Mr. Brown”. The names are repeated under each of the illustrations.

Here again is a moment frozen in time from almost two centuries ago: a group of people coming together just as we do today (albeit without lavish aristocratic parties), living out their lives in various ways before those fragile flames were extinguished forever.

I have quite a few of these books, most of them far less distinguished in their provenance. There are nameplates that announce school prizes: a lovely little book from 1902 entitled Beauties of Nature that was “awarded to Mildred Osborne, Vth form, for 1st Position in Mathematics”. Or brief messages to accompany the book as a gift – to a child, a wife, a lover, a friend.

Each one of these represents the briefest of glimpses into a past life. Each hand-written message tells a little of its story. And each one keeps its secret.

Which books would you take to a desert island, and why? Email me at

Phil Clapham is a retired whale biologist who lives on Maury Island.

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