Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 11 Sep 2015

What’s in a Book?  Part two

Are you one of those people who picks up a second hand book, opens it and is delighted and intrigued to find on the inside a dedication from the previous owner or a gift message from one of their family or friends? Or are you one of those book buyer who sees the message and thinks the book has been defaced by some idiot who feels he needs to ‘tag’ his belongings like a graffiti artist?

Perhaps, like me, you’re a bit of both. I have to say that I’m often charmed by an elegant dedication written in a graceful copperplate script by fountain pen. This almost feels like you’ve been invited to be the heir to some important cultural artefact and rather emphasises the notion that yours are unlikely to be the last hands it passes through. I’m also rather partial to those now disused gift award book plates – a old school prize for coming top of the class or a Sunday School award for attendance. Was the book every a satisfactory bribe for all those lost Sundays? I wonder.

Witty messages are much harder to pull off and the cool and elegant dedication usually confines itself to a factual recording of a birthday, wedding or holiday trip. I am considerably less charmed by the inscriptions where the giver feels obliged to personalise the gift with some obliquely obscure reference to an in-joke or a painful stab at humour. And, boy, can some of those dedications go on! No free front end page is safe from these book vandals.


However, I think I’m most drawn to those messages that have a clearly poignant back-story. The book that’s clearly never been opened, let alone read, that has a dedication from doting grandparents who have clearly and comprehensively misunderstood the taste or proclivities of their grandchild; or the book that is used to carry a bitter message to a spouse or soon to be ex-lover. These are usually travel books I tend to find and I wonder whether they come with a packed suitcase and a one-way train ticket.

Of course, I’m not the only one to give some thought to the inscription. Go onto the internet and you’ll find whole sites given over to the ‘most awesome inscriptions’ or ‘the 10 funniest inscriptions’ or, at the snooty end of the spectrum ‘The Ottoman Historical Monumental Inscriptions in Edirne’. In fact the fascination of the inscribed books goes way back and if you’re interested you can pick up the 1920s classic by Esther Matson ( A Book of Inscriptions) that has recently been reprinted in paperback.


So, next time you’re out on a book hunting mission take a few moments to check out the inscriptions on the inside of the book you pick up and ask yourself the question –does this add to the charm and stature of this book I’m giving a home to or am I importing the ramblings of an idiot into my otherwise perfectly shaped world?


Terry Potter

September 2015