It was my Aunt Sara in Pittsburgh who first convinced me at age 17 or so that I should always write my name and the year of acquisition in the front of any book that I own. Since that time, I have been very careful to do this every time I’ve come into possession of a book. Each one that I own has “Andy Sturdevant / [year]” written somewhere on the front cover or pastedown. If the pastedown is black or dark blue and the ink won’t show up on it, it’s written on the endsheet.
Any book purchased before 1999 reads “Andrew Sturdevant / [year].” I went by “Andrew” until 1999 or so. That year, my sophomore year of college, I decided that “Andy Sturdevant” was the sort of guy people would rather meet at an art party, so I began referring to myself as “Andy” and suggested others do the same. There aren’t many “Andrew Sturdevant” books around, because before 1999, I rarely had the disposable income for purchasing books. Coincidentally, the first major additions to my book collection were made right around the time I mysteriously became “Andy” because I worked in the same strip mall as a Hawley-Cooke Booksellers that sold remaindered books for absurdly low prices. I could walk over there on lunch and pick up a handful of new art history books for four dollars each.
For a short while, I wrote the month as well — “Feb. 2004,” etc. I stopped doing that after a few months, as it seemed unnecessarily detailed.
If the book was purchased anywhere other than the city in which I was living at the time of purchase, I have traditionally made a note of that.
Occasionally, I will add other details if the circumstances seem extraordinary. If the book is a gift, I will typically make a note of the gift-giver.
I have never been sure what to do with books I have acquired through less formal channels. My copy of The Savage Detectives was borrowed (or, uh, “borrowed”) from the break room of a former employer, where it was in a pile of Dean Koontz thrillers and romance novels of uncertain provenance. I’ve never written my name in it, since it’s not technically mine, though I have no immediate plans to return it to that break room. Is there a statute of limitations? Will I retroactively write “Andy Sturdevant / 2008” in it someday?
I have thought more and more recently about how I decide to acquire books. I have been wondering if I should add more information, other than name and date. For example, consider the two book I am reading now. Roberto Calasso’s Tiepolo Pink was recommended by a painter in New York that I interviewed; he mentioned that Calasso’s treatment of the Rococo artist Giovanni Tiepolo reminded him of two painters here in Minneapolis whose studios we’d both visited. I bought Terry Castle’s The Professor because Dave Hickey wrote such a glowing review of it in a recent Harper’s. Should I note these facts (“Andy Sturdevant / 2010 / Recommended by David Reed”)? Will I remember these anecdotes? Will it matter in five years? Ten years? Has anyone developed a system for annotating personal library accessions in this way?
Perhaps I ought to write book rhymes in the front cover, as Wikipedia tells me was the custom before the 19th Century:
If this book you steal away
What will you say
On Judgment Day?
Personally? “I didn’t think anyone in the office was ever going to read The Savage Detectives, St. Peter, sir.”