This fascination started because, as the youngest of four, most of the books I read were very clearly labeled as Not Mine — in other words my older sisters and brother had put their names inside the front covers. Or some parent or relative had written something like "To darling NotAnne, happy birthday with all our love, Auntie Jean, Uncle Stan, Diane and Ian." Which still meant that no matter how much I loved the book, it was still able to be wrested from me and removed from my stash of favorite books.
(By the way, I looked through a few old books to see if there was anything worth scanning for this post, and found this, where my sister Jill had staked a claim, only to be written over my my oldest sister Jan. Notice who ended up keeping the book, LOL – but shh, don't tell them.)
I was into "keepers" early in life. Maybe it came from having stories and poems (AA Milne, especially) read or recited to me over and over as a littlie, always wanting my favorite stories repeated. But most kids are like that, I think. I never changed. I still have comfort reads and if I've loved a book I want to own it, so it will be there for me to lay my hand on whenever I need to.
So I learned early to look inside the front cover of books to check out who to watch out for. My fear was always that I'd have a book taken from me before I'd finished it. This often happened. I was a good ten years younger than my siblings — still am, strangely — and often when we went visiting there was nobody of my age to play with. But I was pretty easy to keep quiet — put me with a book or an animal and I was happy. Often it was a book, and oh, the anguish when it came time to leave if I'd fallen in love with a book and hadn't finished it…
Some of my parents' friends had specially designed bookplates inside their books. I thought that was very posh, and wanted so much for us to get them, too, but we never did. I remember making some one time and carefully gluing them into a book — and getting into such trouble for it. (Admitting nothing here, but I'd probably glued my bookplate over some brother or sister's name.) Obviously I wasn't the first little girl who made her own bookplate. Gorgeous, isn't it?
Some of our books had bookplates inside — award bookplates. Both my parents, but Mum in particular won lots of prizes, often in the form of a book, leather bound and precious, with an ornate bookplate inside. Dad's prizes tended to come as cheap editions of classics, all his little rural school could afford, but just as prized by us all. Sometimes the school or church had printed bookplate, occasionally there was a handwritten inscription from a teacher, which I think is even lovelier, though not as decorative.
Inscriptions make books so much more special, I think. I have a collection of books from relatives long gone, poetry books that my grandfather gave my grandmother, romantically inscribed, and signed, always, "from your loving Billy." He'd learned the love of Scotland, poetry and Robbie Burns at his father's knee and passed it down through the generations. There's one I'll never forget, inside a book of Burns poems: "To my darling little Rosie, from your loving Billy, as I leave for hell in Flanders…" Newlyweds, parted by war.
When I was thinking about this blog, I looked through some of the old family books, and found a stamp I'd never noticed before inside one of them: Chas Dunn Lending Library, Belgrave. That's my great-great grandfather, and I never knew he'd operated a lending library. The only photo I have of him is when he was running a feed and grain store, which later turned into a grocery store. So there's a story right there, from that one little stamp.
One of my treasures is this little book my mum found for me in France when I was eight and we were touring Europe in the school holidays — it was the year we lived in Scotland. As usual, I'd run out of things to read. I was so excited to see second-hand book stalls stretching forever along the Seine River — until I discovered all the books were in French! But my wonderful mother kept looking until she found one small book in English, about Guy of Warwick, a brave knight who committed great acts of bravery in order to win the heart of the cold Lady Phyllis. I was a picky romance reader even then, for even at eight, I thought Guy deserved someone a whole lot nicer than Phyllis. But I still read it over and over. The inscription says, "Anne, for something to read in Paris," and the date, which was Bastille Day.
When I was fifteen, we moved into a big city for the first time, and I had to travel by train and tram (trolleycar) to school, going through the centre of the city. Naturally my friends and I grew to know the city centre really well, but my favorite activity was done alone — it was too uncool to do with friends. I haunted Berry's Antiques, and oh the treasures! Books for a few cents. Whenever I had any pocket money I'd to go there on the way home from school and comb through the tables and tables of books. Six or seven of the Georgette Heyers I bought there have the same name written on the inside cover, Violet Edith Reed. She must have been an old lady who had died when I bought them, but the inscriptions on these books recall a young girl who eagerly awaited Georgette Heyers' latest book each birthday or Christmas… "To Violet, from your friend Enid. Happy Birthday", To darling Violet, Merry Christmas from Mummy and Daddy." I feel such a kinship with Violet Edith Reed, and still gladly cherish her books — even the one she borrowed from her friend Enid and never gave back…
I love how inscriptions span the barriers of time and open a tiny window into someone's life and connecting us across the generations. With this in mind, I always try to write inside a book I'm giving to someone. It used to be easy, but strangely, since I've become an author and often have to sign books, I now struggle to decide what to write. I recently discovered a blog (thanks, Janice,) Forgotten Bookmarks, where a used and rare book dealer posts, in his own words — "the personal, funny, heartbreaking and weird things I find in these books." The inscription on the right is from his blog, and looking at it, I'm amazed what the author wrote. I think it might free me up in future.
So what about you? Do you have books with inscriptions that touch you, or remind you of a time past? If so, share a favorite with us. Or is it something that's dying out, now that books are so cheap and disposable?