Compass points Dedicated to...
Forget judging a book by its cover, author WB Gooderham argues that it’s the dedication in the flyleaf that offers the best guide for what is to follow.
For some years now I have been collecting previously-owned books that – judging from the hand-written inscriptions contained within – were originally given as presents but have long since parted company with their intended recipients. For example, in Skoob Books on London’s Marchmont St, I picked up a slightly battered copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travel-lit classic, Time of Gifts, which contained the following message – written neatly in pencil – on the flyleaf:
According to Mum (alias the Guru of the Postal Rates) the best way to send a book is as printed matter, but then it can’t include a letter – hence this method.
I enjoyed this book (and its sequel) a ‘lot.’ While I was reading them, I thought of you, and wondered what memories you have of any of the times and places he describes. Of course this world, (of central Europe as it was in 19??) vanished before I was born. The mixture of the author’s experiences of it at age 18 and his reflections now (or at any rate in 1978) on a world it is impossible to re-visit, give the book an usual texture, I think.
Don’t feel obliged to read it if it doesn’t “grab” you. You can view this as a short letter with 300 pages attached.
Lots of love
P.S. Hungary is in the second volume.”
While the description of the handwritten message plus book as “a short letter with 300 pages attached” is quite brilliant, it struck me that these inscriptions serve – intentionally or otherwise – as guides to the journey of the imagination that is to follow. For, to be given a book containing a heartfelt inscription from a friend, partner or relation, can do much to influence your reading of the text proper. You may be nudged in a certain direction, having been notified of various points of local interest to be on the look-out for – such as Safie’s implied suggestion that Dad may be able to draw comparisons between the world depicted in the book and the near-present. But you also get the impression that Safie wouldn’t be too disgruntled if Dad ignored this suggestion and discovered his own unique reading of the text – or even if he decided to leave the book unread altogether.
Needless to say, not all the inscriptions-as-guides in my collection are quite as amiable as Safie. Some have a slightly sinister passive-aggressive tone: such as the copy of Letter To A Christian Nation inscribed with the message “I’m not trying to force you into anything…”.
Others seem quite keen to make sure the reader takes a very specific path and implies there is not the faintest of option to stray. Sometimes this prescriptive advice is evidently delivered for the very best intentions: a copy of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row containing the message “it is the most life-affirming book with the most perfect ending”. At other times it is as if the inscriber is setting out with the sole purpose of rubbing the reader’s nose in the dirt: leading him or her away from the pleasant tourist attractions and into the slum areas of degradation, to be shown the ‘stuff of life’ in all its gritty glory. Inside a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Words I discovered the following inscription: “For Mummy – may you read it all – clearly and without prejudice – right to the end! Lots of love, Hetty.” It is worth mentioning that the cover is illustrated with the text: “I loathe my childhood and all that remains of it”.
Admittedly Hetty is an extreme case, but not too far removed from the crowded middle ground of zealous-but-well-meaning inscribers. If these inscriptions were tour guides they would be of the overly-enthusiastic kind: ingratiating to a fault, never letting go of your arm and forever leading you breathlessly from one scene to the next. I have a copy of Damon Runyon’s On Broadway inscribed with the following: “The odds are 100 to 1 or thereabouts that I will ever speak to you again should you lose, misplace or otherwise fail to read this book from cover to cover and at the conclusion fail in the oral examination set by the Admirers of Damon Runyon Society, since to pass the written test the odds are that you would need to improve your Yiddish spelling having seldom learnt to spell in English – amen. AP.”
And finally there are perhaps the most satisfying inscriptions of all: the subtle, the secretive and the cryptic. If these inscriptions were guides they would be arrows scratched into the trunks of trees or a trail of breadcrumbs leading through a forest to a hidden location. There is an undeniable thrill of voyeurism in reading these decidedly private messages: I know I shouldn’t be reading them – or even sharing them now – and yet.... A copy of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (circa 1964) is inscribed with the following message: “From one naughty young lady to another, hoping your mother doesn’t know you’re out and that you wear only the best woolly bloomers”; while a second-hand copy of the Penguin Book of Infidelities is dedicated to “Rebecca – in case you get any ideas”. And inside the Book of Surrealist Games is written one of the simplest – and one of my favourite – dedications in the whole collection: “For Ted – my period is 3 days late.”
Dedicated to...: The Forgotten Friendships, Hidden Stories and Lost Loves found in Secondhand Books by WB Gooderham (Bantam Press, part of Transworld Publishers, £9.99)