They say you should never take an ink pen to a book. My mother would faint at the very idea. I’ve always argued with her (and others), though, of the bite-sized pieces of history lost if we all subscribed to that idea of books as sacred, untouchable artworks.
I write in my books. I do it all, from notes in the margins, to underlines, highlights, and even phone numbers if I absolutely have to (ie. am reading on a bus and that book is the only paper I have). I’m happy to do it, and I get a strange thrill when my secondhand books feature those very same scribblings. I feel like the next bearer in some great literary torch race. From reader to reader, taking notes as we go, each pointing out to the next just what it was about A Thousand Acres or Lord of the Flies that captivated us so (my secondhand copies of those books are filled with red pen comments and multi-coloured flouro highlights).
Better, however, than the notes and the markings throughout are those two or three-line inside jacket cover inscriptions when books are passed on as gifts. As much as I enjoy finding those inscriptions when book shopping at Saint Vinnie’s, I always feel slightly sad for the giver that their great gift has ended up with a peeling one dollar price tag in a thrift store. Did the receiver, I wonder, not like the book? Have they read and re-read it and feel it’s outlived its use? Did the reader ... die? So many questions, so much history.
We, as book recyclers, don’t know the giver or the receiver, but we can relate. We can look at the title of the book and know very quickly why it was handed over—Bridges of Madison County to an unrequited love, perhaps? Maybe Sophie’s World to a friend needing to see the bigger picture? And often the inscription will intensify our ability relate with short words of wisdom: “you need to read this book” or a line of Xs and Os.
I thought it might be fun to have a look at those bites of history, those moments marking a book’s move from one reader to another.
For our first post, I picked two key inscriptions, the first inside Richard Bach’s Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, and the second from Conversation in the Cathedral by Mario Vargas Llosa.
Back in my first year at university, a friend handed me Illusions as a gift. Not a new copy bought just for me, but their own copy, with the words, “No, it’s okay, I’ll find another one”. Apparently, I needed it then and there. I went on to discover that such an idea was a major part of the book—what we really need, the universe will always provide. Sean-oh, in Christmas of 1980, very likely needed messages of inner strength and self-belief. There’s not much to this inscription on first glance, but look more closely and you’ll see the sunlight-like rays beaming from the word “love”, an extra expression of fondness just right for such a book.
As for Margie’s Christmas message to Kate, now that’s a little more mystifying: “Here’s to some successful duck rescue missions in ‘94”. Talk about a piece of history. Here’s a dedication you don’t normally see—just who is this Kate and what birds is she out rescuing? And why Canvesation in the Cathedral and not, while we’re on the subject, Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull? I haven’t read the Llosa book, and there may very well be ducks in the cathedral. Whatever the case, it’s a magical moment that reminds us that readers are all types of people, and that books as gifts transcend standard occasions and sentiments.