So I recently read an article by the author Antoine Wilson who came across a used copy of one of his own books in a cafe in Los Angeles. Flicking through it, he noticed there was an inscription inside. The scribble simply said, “For Sarah—I hope you enjoy my twisted little book!” It was the author’s own inscription. He then attempts to unravel the mystery of who Sarah was (or is) and how the book ended up in a cafe.
This got me thinking about inscriptions in books in general. It’s impressive to find one not only in a book you wrote, but the inscription itself was penned by yourself. But what I have become intrigued by is a kind of lost art of the personal greeting written inside the cover of an antiquated piece of literature.
I’m talking almost archaic tomes that history has forgotten about, but that were once owned by someone at some point in the past.
I became fascinated by this recently. Anyone who’s ever been into a Wetherspoon’s pub (for those who aren’t familiar: it’s basically what a ‘default setting’ on a night out in British towns and cities looks like) will have noticed that some contain shelves of dusty books that just kind of blend into the background.
Well, I started thumbing through them. Everyone does. Let’s face it, you’ve all played the game of ‘find the one with the most amusing title’. It’s like exploring an alternative universe in that it’s almost impossible to imagine a world in which these books were published and sold.
That’s not to rubbish the books outright. The titles alone are a wonderful snapshot of a bygone era in which naming a book seemed more on point, descriptive, scholarly and sometimes completely baffling than what we’re used to seeing in the Waterstones top twenty:
“A Dialogue On The Nature Of Bee Stings”
“The Boy With The Hat (And Then He Goes Out To Play)”
“Excitement & Thrills: What This Books Does Not Contain”
“Deadly Diseases & Horseback Techniques”
I made those up, but my point stands. Some of the titles you can find are basically the Snakes On A Plane of the abandoned literature world.
But titles aside, you’ll often find ones which have messages written inside the cover. Amidst the yellowing of the text and the odd faded library stamp, there’ll be a little historical tale penned by someone who may or may not be alive anymore.
I’ll give you an example of one I found from a book called Bridge Is Only A Game (I wasn’t kidding about the titles):
In appreciation of the exemplary fortitude, patience and stability of character displayed throughout the year 1961 and in the hope that careful study will recover the financial losses of that year.* From two understanding and grateful parents.
(*N.B. Insert full stop and = use capital!)
This was a message written for someone fifty-seven years ago. While that’s not ancient by most people’s standards, I find it fascinating that this book was gifted with a personal dedication nearly six decades back. (At the time of this post, I am thirty-four years old. That means the inscription – and the seemingly the book given as a gift – was written twenty-three years before I was born)
Who was Lorna? What ‘exemplary fortitude’ did she display to earn this book? Did the book have any significance in her life or was it just something they thought she would enjoy? What ‘financial losses’ did Lorna experience and – perhaps most importantly – did she ever overcome them?
This short message paints a huge picture of a tiny portion of life for someone nearly sixty years ago. The history it conveys is more striking than the printed text of the entire book simply because it was hand-written.
Stephen King once said that he believed writing was a form of time travel; that he could write something down and it be read by someone years later. They would essentially be reading into the past.
I think this is a beautiful example of the kind of time travel writing that he was referring to. While I’m not a history buff, I am awed at just how much passes by that goes completely unnoticed by the majority of the population. To think that an inscription in a book intended for one person we will never encounter found its way into my hands and onto this blog is haunting and wonderful in equal measures.
It makes me wonder whether any books I own will end up in similar positions; that some futuristic pub-dweller will scan the antiquated texts and pick one that I wrote a message in decades ago. I wonder if an inscription in the Dave Mustaine autobiography A Life In Metal will be just as fascinating in the future (also another one for the title game)