The Guestbook

I recently took a hike up to Paradiskollen near Harestua with two friends. It was – to me – an unseasonably hot September evening. We left from Jeremy’s house at around 5.30pm and began our ascent through the forest nearby up towards the peak. The peak is 670m, or 2,198 feet. We started out at a good pace but I was disadvantaged by the fact that, in preparation for the sun going down and the cold to come in, I wore heavy pants with a t-shirt.  I brought a superfluous jacket. Jeremy and Marcus, both here much longer than me, sensibly wore shorts. In no time at all, I sweating buckets. Fortunately, Jeremy had sensibly packed a big litre bottle of water for us and I was the chief beneficiary. As we climbed, we spotted huge thickets of blueberries all along the path, mostly unpicked, and very ripe. After reaching maybe a third of the way up, we decided to take a breather, and went foraging through the scrub. A welcome break and we were, after picking great big handfuls of blueberries, ready to carry on. There was a deep red haze in the air that dispersed the sunshine, caused we thought by the trees sweating in the late September sun.

We climbed further and further up and eventually, assisted partially by ropes towards the end, we reached the peak. At the peak, I saw something left by the Den Norske Turistforening, which I really liked. There was a metal dial explaining what you could see around from the peak. The view was very impressive indeed. It was I think the highest I had ever yet climbed, and I was glad to have made it, more or less in one piece, to the top of this since I knew that soon I would be walking up Gaustatoppen, which comes in at something like the 1800m mark, more than double this. I have been told, and I hope, that Gaustatoppen – the highest peak in Telemark – has a gentler incline. I’ll need it, I thought, as I stood atop Paradiskollen. As well as the metal disk, with a guide to the views, in the shaft holding up the disk there was a metal box inside of which was a guestbook for us to sign.

I think this is a wonderful idea, and caps off the sense of achievement that comes with getting to the top of any peak, however big or small. Guest books are a big thing here in Norway. It is common that people keep as guestbook at their hytte (cabin). Den Norske Turistforening at their various turhytter, for those who want to go on long hikes and have a place to stay to break up their journeys overnight, also have guestbooks. It is also common in museums and similar such places. Guestbooks appeal to my sense of posterity. Always fascinated by them, I never pass up the opportunity to add my name to one.

I’ve signed guestbooks at museums, art galleries, hotels, castles and now, I can say, on top of a mountain. While guestbooks appeal to my sense of posterity, they are usually a reminder of finitude. After all, once you scribble your name into a guestbook, unless you come back to the same place with great regularity, you’ll never see your entry ever again. Your name will be one more name among the hundreds and perhaps even thousands of people to have signed them. Unless they are digitized and some future relative of mine, yet unimagined and unimaginable in their lives to me, scours online archives in search of references to me – whatever relation I might be to them. The chances that anyone connected to me – living or yet to live – will encounter those marks I’ve made in those guestbooks is slim enough. Pen’s mark lives on, but not the mouth that sang.[i]

This set me to thinking as to the purpose of guestbooks. To record guests of course. One who is entertained at the house or table of another. From Heorot’s hall to a mountaintop in Harestua. The word guestbook was first used in 1849, in Graham’s Magazine,  a magazine that was at one time a rival to Harper’s and was edited by Edgar Allan Poe. The term visitor’s book appearing three years before in 1846 in Punch. He plunged into the mysteries of the guestbook, a sentence in the February edition of Graham’s ran. And we’ve been plunging in ever since.

Today we often think of guestbooks as something you sign at the end of a museum exhibition. One person has colourfully described such means of public expression through the private medium of handwriting thus:

Some signatures have the literary quality of a drunken phone call, while others contain eloquence worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. These institutionally sanctioned rants—these drive-by shootings—these political haiku—are special exhibits themselves…[i]

Outside of museums and exhibits, I associate a guestbook mostly with hotels. Not just any hotel. Hotels that were once country piles – expensive, but not showy – hotels with a certain regard for their own place – however minor or major – in history are the ones with guestbooks. Such guestbooks usually have an off-white or creamy paper, gold leaf about the edge of the pages, with a soft red real or faux leather cover.

I have never yet had the privilege to be the first to sign an empty guestbook. In a way, I’m glad of this. The guestbook after all is a physical, bound, lined, manifestation of the love people have for an exhibit, a hotel, or their friends and their cabin. What could be more unloved than a hotel with an empty or a near empty guest book? What says decline more than huge gaps between the dates between one entry and the next?

Only very rarely have I signed a guestbook at the end of its life, when there is just a page or two remaining. I have signed most somewhere in their middle age. There is a fullness to them – there are plenty of pages filled already, with guests who’ve come from far and wide and there are plenty of pages as yet unfilled, waiting for fresh marks and remarks.

Presented with a guestbook, I catch myself glancing immediately at the names just above where I will mark my entry. A neighbourly relationship is forming. Who will be my neighbours on this page, I wonder. I am interested first in rifling back through three or four of the closest pages, to find places I recognize. Occasionally, I hope to glance a look at someone who hails from the same place I do. My tastes widen then, and I search for those from the unusual or unexpected parts of the world. Then I look at names – seeking out the rare, the unusual. I marvel at the handwriting: the chicken scrawls, the cutesy and the cartoonish, the perfect cursive of those taught to write in close proximity to the teacher’s cane.

Some people leave a lot of themselves behind on the page. Full addresses, the number of their houses, postcodes and all. Some are more cryptic, a street or a town name, sometimes the country alone. Full names, initials, degrees, titles. Some leave little messages – congratulations on the wonderful exhibit, what wonderful hosts & how helpful the hotel staff were. Some draw smiley faces. Some use the guestbook as a chance to play, or to chide. Some write the date over and over again in their own hand, others following convention with a simple perfunctory “. Some add the time. Many of course leave nothing, unrecorded in the guestbooks. Their visit logged, if it all, only in their own memory banks.

We pressure the paper and make our mark with ink in the hope that pen’s mark lives on, but for me, the pleasures is the plunging in. Connecting ourselves with others, even those we don’t and will never know. Writing in a guestbook is at once all about saying I was here, I lived, visited this place once, saw this exhibit, but it is also strangely anonymous as an act. You somehow know no one is ever likely to read what you’ve written and yet you hope. After a few days, a few weeks, to say nothing of the passing of years, your entry will be beyond the onward march of the guestbook pages. Guestbooks work as a kind of intermittent census of yourself. A record of your movements for others. Take pleasure in the plunge as often as you can.

 

[i] Morris, Bonnie J., “The Frightening Invitation of a Guestbook”, Curator: The Museum Journal, Volume 54, Issue 3, July 2011, pp. 243–252.

[ii] Trevor Joyce, “Rome’s Wreck”, XXXII, in Selected Poems, 1967-2014, Bristol: Shearsman Books, p. 58.

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