Have you ever picked up a second hand book that has an inscription?
I have many in my collection, names and dates, sometimes places or a short message, often a declaration of love. Some of them are just names, scrawled inside the front flap – an tic I know all too well. Others clearly show that the book has been a gift. I have a book inscribed with ‘much love on your 18th, always, Gran’ and another, a rather old Charlotte Bronte inscribed with ‘For my Elsa, love, your Walter.’
I wonder who Elsa and Walter were. And I wonder how this book, which was clearly a loving gift, ended up in a second hand book shop and then into my possession.
It’s a strange, sad shadow that hangs over the book. Knowing that someone chose it and gave it in love. That it was cherished and held by hands that loved the giver and treasured the gift. But I don’t know who they are. And I never will. Somehow, someway, the book ended up with me, and when I am gone it will end up with someone else.
I suppose we never really think about the hands that have held those books before us. The people they were. If they thought the same way about the story, loved the characters the way we do, felt the same emotions. It’s not the same as reading the same book as someone else, it’s reading the SAME BOOK as someone else. The very same one that they held in their hands. In some way I feel that is special. Almost as if you are sharing something special with the others who held it.
Books have this wonderfully magical quality.
Someone once told me that every book is a self contained universe, alive inside and just waiting to share it’s secrets.
That has always stayed with me, which is probably why I can’t ever part with a book. I have an obsessive need to protect them, love them and keep them safe. When I pass them on I do so with care and careful consideration, taking care to place the right book with the right person. Likewise, when I buy a book for someone I take my time, think about them and consider the story I want to share with them, the story that will most resonate with them. Sometimes it can take time to find the right book.
And then there’s the inscription.
To inscribe or not? Well, that depends on the person too. Some people hate a book to be ‘defaced’ while other people are touched by the words of others.
Sometimes inscription can end up causing hurt later on.
I have some books that were bought for me by a great-aunt I worshiped. She was the person who was solely responsible for my love of books, and my eventual writing career. They are signed by her, and are the only evidence I have that she ever existed in my life. The only mementoes. And to have her handwriting, writing words of love to me now, so many years after she passed, means so much. But I know that one day, many years from now, those books will eventually fall into someone else’s hands through some convoluted route, and they will wonder who ‘Claire’ and ‘Margaret’ were, and why ‘A Little Princess’, what was the significance of that book to those people.
I also have several books, bought for me by someone I once cared for a great deal. They are all inscribed with touching words. They are books that were carefully chosen by someone who really knew me well. Books by my favourite author, follow-ons of my favourite book. Clearly chosen with much care and lovingly inscribed.
In both these cases I read those words when I read those books, and they stir deep feelings of sadness, loss and love. They bring back memories of other, better times.
Likewise I have books with inscriptions from people who are still very much active and wicked in my life. They make me smile and, sometimes laugh aloud. I wonder, too, what people will think of those inscriptions and those choices when those books end up in their hands.
My point is that the book lives on. Not just the STORY, but the very BOOK, as a physical object. A self contained universe passed hand to hand and shared with explorers, all of them thinking of those who have held that universe before them.