When I was 18 I came to be studying for an English Lit A-Level in what I’ll politely describe as one of Derbyshire’s least cheerful towns. With my friends far away, I fended off the gloom by spending hours in a tiny second-hand bookshop. I probably read more books that year than in any other of my life (although admittedly, being short of cash, this was mostly achieved by hiding in a corner of the shop – in retrospect perhaps not a fair exchange for the place that saved me from boredom).
I loved everything about them – their randomness, their dog-eared covers, the textures of their pages. Sometimes I wondered about the rambling journey a book might have made over the years, whether it had been treasured, why given away. And if they were inscribed, those tired old books often held another layer of humour, poignancy or mystery. As W.B. Gooderham mentions in his lovingly curated collection, Dedicated to ... , there’s a sadness to inscriptions found in second-hand books. Sometimes they’re a glimpse into lives and loves long over, in one way or another. But there’s also something heart-warming about the book still existing, still being read, still carrying its message of admiration, affection or advice.
Gooderham’s finds include a copy of The Sovereign Sun, Selected Poems inscribed: ‘Since I cannot wrap up the sunshine here are the poems that always made it happen for me’. Many of them are funny. A copy of That Uncertain Feeling bears the message: ‘To Robert on his crucial 30th birthday – hoping for a safe and speedy emergence from adolescence’. There are comments on politics and avowals of love, nods to ‘scatological tastes’ and wishes for ‘dreams full of mackerel’.
We launched our #inscribedby campaign on social media late last year to tie in with our Christmas posters on tube and train networks, which celebrated the way that dedications can make a book an even more special gift. We asked Folio staff for contributions. This was my favourite:
We ran a competition inviting examples from our social media followers. Some were inscriptions made by authors, including a cheerful profanity by John le Carré to (we think!) a dear friend. This was one of the winning entries – there’s something elegant and elegiac about it:
Our five favourite entries won copies of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, specially inscribed by her. You can see them and some other entries here. If you have an inscription to share, we’d still love to see it – just join us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and use the hashtage #inscribedby with your photo.
Long may the book inscription live.