Book inscriptions: To my dear …

This book belongs to
This book belongs to …

Just recently I was staying with my parents in the family home and was having a nosey through their bookshelves when I came across some rather charming book dedications. These small notes left in book covers lent so much more meaning to the book and provided a wonderful timeline of my parents’ book collection and it got me thinking about my own bookshelves.

My parents’ book collection is extensive and they are rather organised sorts so had ordered their bookshelves in subject groupings. Thus I found myself looking at the ‘religious’ section. Here I found a number of copies of the bible which had been given to my parents in their youth. Reading the fond inscriptions from parents or aunts and uncles to their young charges was quite telling.

For those of faith, I imagine giving a bible must feel like one of the most important gifts to give, and it was lovely to see the inscriptions, which in themselves told a story, even if just to give a date to the gift.

It was interesting to see the gifts of religious books continued from childhood, through adolescence and young adulthood and then stopped. I suspect because my parents were no longer overtly religious and their passions were rather more consumed with politics – campaigning for nuclear disarmament and world peace.

I reflected on my own book collection and realised that I have very few dedications or inscriptions in my books and more the pity. That is not to say that some trace of my life has not been left in my books. When flicking through my books I often find an old train ticket used as a bookmark, a postcard sent from a friend marking a place or a soggy corner where I dropped my book in the bath.

For some reason I have always felt like it was ‘wrong’ or ‘naughty’ to write in books. I have occasionally written a dedication when giving a gift to my husband, because I know he will cherish the book, but when giving books to friends and family I rarely write in them just in case they hate the book and want to give it away.

A book inscription from 1894
An inscription from 1894 I found in the library

Likewise I have always resisted writing my kid’s names in the place where it says ‘this book belongs to’ in the mistaken belief that by letting the eldest write their name in the book it would somehow prevent that book from being handed down to their siblings. But now I see how wrong-headed this whole idea is! The whole beauty of a book collection is in seeing who owned the book first, what year it was given and who gave it to you. This is what makes your book collection unique to you.

As a writer I have spent many hours in the rare books room of the British Library delving into old books and one of my favourite pleasures is to find a dedication or inscription which gives a glimpse of the previous owner of that book. Spookier still is when a hair is left trapped in the pages and one wonders if it was from the head of a modern reader, a librarian, bookseller or perhaps even the original book owner themselves.

So it is that we all leave traces in our books in one way or another and it has certainly inspired me to want to start dedicating my books again. I will arm myself with a pen and write my kid’s names in their books, let them have ownership of that which I hold so precious. When I give a book from now on I shall write at least the date given and from whom and, when warranted, I hope I shall be able to pen some heartfelt message as I gift a favourite book to someone I love, not defacing but enhancing the history and value of the book.

Do you write in books? If so what do you write and why? Please leave a comment!

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