• West Cork Literary Festival 8-15 July 2022

Dedicated To: Forgotten Friendships, Hidden Stories & Lost Loves in Second-Hand Books

Writing.ie | Magazine | The Big Idea
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By WB Gooderham

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The right book, given to the right person at the right time, can work wonders. (Conversely, the wrong book given to the wrong person at the wrong time can prove disastrous.) Spirits can be raised and horizons broadened; broken hearts can be mended, old flames rekindled, friendships reaffirmed. A book can say, Sorry, and, Thank You. A book can say I miss you, I love you, I forgive you; I never want to see you again.

And because reading is one of the most intimate of human activities – usually requiring silence and solitude and time – and because the interpretation of a single book will always be fluid – each reader bringing his or her own imagination, experience and emotional intelligence to bear on the text – it is not surprising that in order share in that intimacy (albeit by proxy), or to nudge the reader toward a desired interpretation, the giver of the book will often inscribe something suitably pertinent on the flyleaf for the recipient.

As a habitual buyer of second-hand books, I came to notice that I was accidently accruing a rather interesting sub-collection of books containing such inscriptions. These messages ranged from the awkward scratchings of adolescent infatuation, to the resentful recriminations of a love affair gone sour  (see pic below)

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– and all elicited a certain frisson at reading something private, often highly personal, and patently not intended for my eyes.

But I like to think that there is more to this hobby than a mere bibliophilic kink. Specifically, that these dedications offer tantalising glimpses into their host books’ secret histories, imbuing the physical objects with an emotional resonance quite independent of – or intriguingly linked to – the actual texts. Often the choice of book, coupled with the message within, can suggest a narrative all of its own. (Such as the copy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s words, addressed to “mummy” with the instructions that she “read it all without prejudice”, including, one presumes, the cover text which baldly states, “I loathe my childhood and all that remains of it.”)

Others are baffling in their incongruity. (Who would have fingered George Orwell’s dystopian horrorshow, 1984, as a romantic offering? Yet here it is, crowbarred into this unlikely role by what seems to be love-giddy logic: “This book was published in 1949, it was about the future 1984. I have given it to you with love in 1994, the start of our future.”)

But, for me, the overriding emotion evoked by these inscriptions is one of pathos. At their most basic level all are records of human connections – or at least attempts at human connections – given added poignancy by the fact that all have been discovered among the shelves of second-hand book shops and, for whatever reason, are no longer in the hands of the original dedicatees.

Among my collection there is one dedication in particular seems to encapsulate the appeal of inscribing a book with a personal message.

Found inside a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts is a fairly long inscription written from a son to his father, reassuring him that he need not feel obliged to read the book if it doesn’t “grab him”, before going on to describe his gift as, quite brilliantly, “a short letter with 300 pages attached.” This, surely, gets to the heart of the matter. For, while I may (grudgingly) acknowledge the practical advantages of Kindle and the like, when it comes to the giving of gifts there is still nothing to beat the physical book: a gift that not only furnishes a room, but, in a very real sense, has the potential to furnish a life, also.

(c) WB Gooderham

Dedicated to You is in bookshops now, or pick up your copy online here.

WB Gooderham is a freelance writer, regularly reviewing books and contributing articles on literature to The Guardian – find out more about him here. He lives in London and is currently writing his debut novel and putting the finishing touches to his next non fiction project, Three Score & Ten.

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