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To inscribe or not to inscribe? A bookish dilemma.

It was written in loose, sweeping lettering, on the inside cover.

From Casey and John on your 61st birthday.

I had picked up the book for $6 at a stall at the Torquay foreshore market, so Casey and John were strangers to me, as was the person who had been gifted the book. It seemed to me to be a shame that the previous owner had let the book go. Or perhaps it was a more permanent passing that parted the book from its owner.

Another time, I borrowed a book from a friend, and in it, found beautiful notes about where and when the book had been read – little jottings that told stories in themselves.

Somehow, I find the words written in pen on the pristine pages of a book are more intimate and enticing than those written elsewhere. In writing them, someone has been willing to deface a book – surely some kind of crime if not well-considered – and so the words must have a particular significance. And if the gift of giving a book has a level of intimacy – taking the time to choose a book that might move, inform or entertain a specific person – an inscription is an extension of this act of thought and generosity.

It is a significance that my children also seem to sense. Before I read a book that one of them has been given for Christmas or their birthdays, they ask me to read the inscription on the inside cover. Each time, they get a little thrill when the little note is for them.

Perhaps it is the sense of intimacy of marking a book that explains why readers are so eager to get their books signed by their favourite authors. At festivals, launches and bookshop signings, fans line up and wait patiently for the thrill at having their favourite writer mark a book with their name and ours. I am not immune. I queued for Hannah Kent in Clunes and Alain de Botton in Melbourne; only defeated by the prospect of waiting hours with a four and six-year-old for David Walliams’ signature.

Again, in a book bought from the Torquay market, I was surprised and happy to see that the copy had been autographed by the illustrator. Who would give away such a thing?

Inscriptions by writers can be fascinating, as noted in an article in The Huffington Post. Jack Kerouac revealed himself to be the narrator of On the Road in an inscription on a presentation copy of On the Road.

 “Dear Janie Adams, You will find a striking resemblance between Remi Boncoeur in Chapter Eleven and your good friend Henri Cru – As ‘Sal Paradise’ in this book I should know because I was there. Best Wishes, Jack Kerouac, July 5, 1959.”

Ernest Hemmingway inscribed a copy of The Old Man and the Sea for his goddaughter with the words,

“For Alden / this strange book which / I had the un-believable (sp.) / luck to write.”

It is not just the words themselves that make these inscriptions so valuable, but also the handwriting that reveals a little of the person who wrote them.

Recently, my mother brought me a pile of books that she had kept on her bookcase. They had been my grandmother’s, and books that we had swapped and debated, enjoying the author’s perspective on travel, art, work and love. On the inside, in small, swirly writing, my grandmother’s name.

And I remembered how she used to hate lending someone a book, never to see it again. Her little treasures, she wanted them back! And so, here was her mark, a little memory of a grandmother, a former librarian, had introduced me to a world of books.

I have always hesitated to write a message on the inside of a book, too reluctant to mark the pages. And overthinking it all, I wonder whether it would make it awkward if the recipient already has the book, and wants to regift it? But, I have never wished a present I have received had not been marked in this way.

Those little words, messy amid the neatness of the typed words, are a trigger for memory of the giver and the time. A birthday or a Christmas, someone close who shared a love of books.

Books hold memories of a time and place, and of stories that made us cry or laugh, but they can also be the keeper of memories of those closer to home. And so, the next time I give a book, I will write a small note as a reminder to the reader. If worst comes to worst and they have already read it, perhaps it will find its way to a stranger at a Torquay market.




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