Inside a book

Anne here, and I’m following on from Andrea’s lovely post about ornamental bookplates and talking about what else you might find inside the covers of a book. I’m fascinated by all kinds of ways in which people make a mass-produced book, something personal. Sometimes it’s by making a new cover for a book — I did that once for the hardback version of one of my books because I disliked the cover the publisher gave me. And I know some people use cloth covers to disguise the fact they they’re reading a romance — in case some nasty person shames them for their reading taste.

It can be by simply writing your name in a book. It’s a sign of ownership — or at least a claim of ownership. 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.

I was amused to find this written in one of my old childhood books. I’m not sure whether you can make it out, by the first name to be written in it was that of my middle sister. Her name and even the address was later very firmly written over by my oldest sister, stating her ownership in no uncertain terms. And of course, who owns the book now? Yes, the baby sister, but shh, don’t tell.

We were brought up to know that writing in or on a book was wrong, a form of vandalism. I suppose putting a name and address was considered acceptable.

Quite a few of our books were awarded to my parents as prizes, and had a fancy bookplate stating that inside them. Mum’s were lovely leather bound books—she was a smart cookie, my mum, but Dad also won a lot of books. His, however were often cheap editions of classics, which were all his little rural school could afford.  The content of the book was, however, equally precious. There were also various church and Sunday-school prizes.

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?

Inscriptions make books so much more special, I think. Sometimes they open a tiny window into someone’s life and can connect us across the generations. 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 a teenager, I bought a lot of my books second-hand from used bookstores and antique stalls. The antique stalls often had clearances of deceased estates, and whole libraries made it onto the trestle tables at the back. One of my cherished finds is five or six Georgette Heyer novels, owned by a girl called Violet Edith Reid of Nimmo St. South Melbourne. I didn’t find them all at once — I suppose the antique seller unpacked boxes one at a time, as space became available. I used to drop in on the way home from school, and go through the titles on the table, and every now and then I’d find one of Violet’s Heyers.

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’m also fascinated to read dedications written by authors. Mostly they are quite serious, but not always. This is one of my favorites —  by P.G.Wodehouse, the dedication in the front of The Heart of a Goof.

To my daughter
without whose never-failing
sympathy and encouragement
this book
would have been finished
half the time.

It’s a pity that nameplates, inscriptions and writing on books is becoming a thing of the past, because of course, you can’t do that on an e-book. They can make even the most ordinary, mass-produced book into something precious and personal.

Most of my books with inscriptions are still in a box somewhere, but when I was looking for other images to illustrate this piece, I googled book inscriptions and clicked on images. Warning — it’s a rabbit hole. An even worse rabbit hole is if you google bookplates and click on images. You have been warned.

So over to you, Wenchly readers. Do you write your name (and other things) in books? Do you read author dedications, or skip past them to get to the story? Do you have any books with inscriptions that you love—or hate? And have you ever written in/on a book?

39 thoughts on “Inside a book”

  1. I used to always write my name in my books and even had a little embossing tool that I’d ordered specially, but I’ve stopped doing it now. Partly because I feel like I’m ruining the pristine condition, and partly because I don’t actually want future owners to know it used to be my book – no idea why! My dad was one of those people who wrote his name in absolutely every book he owned, and as I have inherited quite a few I love seeing his signature whenever I open them. It brings back great memories so maybe I should start doing it in mine again? And yes – I always wanted book plates too but never got round to having any designed and printed.

    • The little embossing tool sounds cool, Christina. When I was first published I made a kind of bookmark with my computer, printed on little clear labels, and people could stick them inside the books. I could also sign them.

      I also made some for me, to put inside the books I used to lend to friends. It had a pic of my Chloe-dog in her red feather boa, and simply said ‘Anne’s book please return.’ They make me smile now when I see them.

  2. When I was a child, most of the books I read belonged to someone else. Maybe the library, or my parents, or my siblings. I did see book plates in books. I did see where people had written their name to show a book was theirs. I just never got in the habit, cause I was not familiar with the concept of me being able to own my books.
    I want to thank you for the reminders of buying second hand books. I do a lot of that even now.
    The book plates are lovely and most of all, I fell in love with A. Helen Page. I’ll bet she became a powerful woman who knew exactly where she was going.
    I think I now am a book addict because of the past. Scary, but true. I just find it hard to pass up any book. There’s a name for that but I have no idea what it is.

    • I think the world you are looking for is Bibliomaniac? 😊
      I had that problem u til i ran out of room on my bookshelves…….now i take tons lf books out of the locsl public library……

      • Thanks, Jane. I used to use my local library all the time, especially for non-fiction. But then they culled their collection drastically and replaced a lot of the brilliant historical references with what I can only call “popular culture non0fiction” and I was devastated.
        These days I mostly read e-books — they don’t stack up or need to be dusted, and when my eyes are tired from working on a computer all day, I can increase the font size.

    • ” I fell in love with A. Helen Page.”
      I did too, Annette. And except for the date, that could have been made by any small child, couldn’t it?
      And a second-hand bookstall will always draw me in. Even though I’m supposed to be culling books, I can’t resist them.

  3. Actually, I just remembered. My kindergarten teacher, Miss Purdy, gave me a book because I was the only one in the class who could read. It was about a cute grey and white kitten who got lost in the rain. When I was moved to live with my grandparents, I never saw the book again. So, it is Miss Purdy’s fault that I am addicted to books.

    • Annette, how lovely that your kindergarten teacher gave you that book. It’s sad that you lost that book, but her wonderful gesture and encouragement of a young reader has stayed with you forever. Thank you Miss Purdy!

  4. Annette, I do hope the lost kitten found its way home in the rain! Your addiction might be called bibliomania?

    Anne, what lovely inscriptions you’ve found. I particularly liked the one your grandfather wrote to his bride when he was going off to hell in Flanders and knew he might never return. I also laughed at the P. G. Wodehouse dedication!

    • Thanks, Mary Jo. Yes, my grandfather was a real romantic, and his inscriptions make me smile a little and tear up a bit. He survived “hell in Flanders” but got badly gassed, and was never the same. He died young — in his early 40’s. I wish I’d known him.

  5. I bought a book from a used book seller on line. Inside it was inscribed “l knew you would like this”. No names anywhere. I love the book (He Shall Thunder in the Sky by Elizabeth Peters) and the inscription !

    • Oh how lovely — and I bet you did enjoy it, as would have the previous owner. I enjoy Elizabeth Peters’s books, though I don’t think I’ve ever read that one. =Thanks, Elizabeth.

  6. Some Georgette Heyer books from used book sellers had inscriptions in them, which I loved reading. There was one book given to a young girl at Christmas.

    I always like reading the dedication. The one you presented here, Anne, is hilarious.

    I don’t like to write anything inside a book. It’s a desecration of someone’s work.

  7. Yes, to all of your questions, Anne!
    I used to write my name in all of my books. I once saw an inscription in a book that said
    Property of….done this day of and the year and liked it so much i started using it in all my books when i was younger. It had such a nice sound to it. I have some books with my mother’s inscription, my father’s and two of my grandparents. Must have been written with fountain pens as the writing is very spidery like.
    I am fascinated by dedications in books and sometimes wonder who the people are and why the book was dedicated to them if there just a name with no explanation

    • Thanks, Jane — yes the fountain pen inscriptions can also fade, making them hard to read. And yes, sometimes the dedications are deliberately vague, so only the people concerned understand. I did that with my dedication in the front of The Perfect Rake. I said “And for all those who waited patiently for “B.G.” to arrive.”
      “B.G.” was “bloody Gideon” which is what I called my hero for a big part of the writing of the book. I’d been trying to write a dark and dangerous kind of hero, and Gideon just refused to cooperate. He just strolled onto the page, being funny and flippant, and of course I fell in love with him, despite my frustration.

      I always read the acknowledgements, too, and sometimes, when I see long lists of thanks to people in a publishing house — especially when it’s the same publisher that I have. I always feel a bit guilty for not doing it, and I wonder how the author knows the names of all those people. I generally only know the name of my editor and her assistant and maybe the publicity person. I suppose it’s because those authors get to actually visit their publisher, whereas I’m on the other side of the world.

  8. I think it’s fun when I buy a used book and it has an inscription or name inside. It tells me the book comes with a history, even if I will never know what it is. For my part, I don’t write in my books and don’t put my name in them. The exception is the few books that I’ve had the author sign.

    • Thanks, Misti — yes, author signed books often personalize books nicely, I agree.
      And yes, an inscription inside a used book can be a little story in itself, and quite tantalizing.

  9. I always used to write my name in my books but not anymore. Probably because I mostly read ebooks. lol. I always read the book dedication. That’s the first thing I look for & then the author’s note. My set up process to begin a book. I still have a couple of the second hand books I bought when I was a poor college student. Boy, I miss those days of finding a treasure in the used book store.

    • Thanks, Jeanne, yes used book stores can offer up some fine treasure. Sadly a lot of those have gone out of business these days, and now it’s hard to find a place to off-load the books that don’t fit on my shelves. I cannot and will not toss lovely books into the recycle bin! But it’s hard.

  10. SUCH a lovely post, Anne. I have a lot of my childhood books with my name inscribed on the first page. I was very serious about kepig track of MY books! (Luckily , my two brothers were sci-fi fiends, so they didn’t try pinch my book!)

    Like you, I enjoy the personal inscriptions of books that I’ve acquired at used book sales. It makes me happy that they were loved. I have some very favorite inscriptions in my books.

    My late mother, who was a wonderful artist, often drew pictures to highlight her inscriptions in birthday books for me, which I cherish. And I also cherish a couple of books that Maurice Sendak signed for me when I was taking a course from him. He drew little pictures, too, which are amazing! Lastly, I happened to find an art book at a used book barn by another very well known artist, with whom I had also studied He had given the book (a coffee table book of his paintings) to a fellow art professor and signed it. It’s very special because I knew both of them.

    Love the Wodehouse dedication. And yes, I always read the dedications in a book.

    • Wow Andrea! Just . . . WOW!
      “I also cherish a couple of books that Maurice Sendak signed for me when I was taking a course from him. He drew little pictures, too, which are amazing!”
      What a wonderful experience, not only the class, but the book. A forever keepsake.
      And your mother’s inscriptions and pictures also sound fabulous. I am envious of anyone who can draw.

  11. I read all dedications, Author’s Notes, and acknowledgments. It is interesting to see how large the author’s Village is, whether it is family, friends, and the writing professionals who helped shape the book. Once in a while, I’ll write a message to a friend I gift a book. It’s usually if I find a book that sparks a memory of good times together. I have a circle of friends who share books. I’ll write my name in the book so they know it originated with me. We each write our names in the book as we read it. When the last of us finishes the book, we return it to the person at the top of the list. Sometimes extra names appear in the list if one of our circles shares it with another friend. Maybe we are a “Sisterhood of Traveling Books.”

    • “It is interesting to see how large the author’s Village is, whether it is family, friends, and the writing professionals who helped shape the book”
      As I said in my comment to Jane, I always wonder about those authors’ villages and feel some wonder and a bit of envy when I read them. I don’t have a crit group — the first person who reads my manuscript is my editor, and in my publishing house, I only know my editor and her assistant. And the foreign rights person who I met at a publisher cocktail party in NY some years ago.
      I did however ask a few writing friends to read my self published novellas, and that was so interesting. But I don’t feel that I can keep asking for a favor like that if I keep self publishing.

      “Maybe we are a “Sisterhood of Traveling Books.””
      Pamela, I love-love-love that notion. And it’s wonderful that you share books with your friends. And then can discuss them, like a very informal book club.

  12. I didn’t have any books of my own for a long time when I was growing up, they were always borrowed, so when I did get to own some my name on the inside was the first thing I did!! I don’t do it anymore.
    I love your story about the Georgette Heyer books!!
    I do read dedications in books, I find them fascinating. Also enjoy wondering about the person whose name is inside second hand books I bought.
    Lovely enjoyable post!

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Teresa. I would have loved to have all of Violet Edith Reed’s Heyer collection — I’m sure she would have had them all together, but the clearance of her home after death wasn’t so concerned with keeping her book organized. (I paid between 20 and 40 cents for each of them.) I’m just glad to have the ones I do.

      One of my big regrets is that my paternal grandmother never knew of my Heyer addiction, because after I was published my aunt, who looked after her in the last years of her life, told me Nana had ALL Heyer’s books — she had an ongoing order for the books to be posted to her on publication, so they would have been first editions — but that they were given to the church when her house was cleared. But she died when I was twelve, so even though I was well into Heyer by then, she was in a different state, so it never came up.

  13. What a lovely post, Anne! I enjoy reading inscriptions. I moved a GREAT deal as a child so belongings were frequently purged; however, I do still have a few books that were inscribed by my grandmother. I also happily read dedications (and author notes and…) and enjoy encountering those with a touch of humor. I don’t tend to write my name in books these days, but at one point I had an embosser that would imprint Library of Kareni Lastname. Hmm, I wonder if it’s buried in a drawer somewhere. I inscribed many a book to my daughter and to nephews, nieces, and great-nephew.

    • Thanks, Kareni — yes a lot of my childhood books were purged when we moved every few years, so I really treasure the ones that survived. You also had an embosser? Like Christina. I’m envious. I’m sure your younger relatives will treasure the books you’ve written in. Thanks for joing in the conversation.

  14. Your grandfather’s inscription truly grabbed me, Anne – I am very glad he returned from that “hell”! And I would answer “yes” to all your questions. I do love to read authors’ dedications.
    I believe I inherited an inability to gift a book without inscribing it. All my relatives were great book-givers and great inscribers, if that’s a word! I have all eight of the Anne of Green Gables series which were given to me by my maternal grandmother on 8 consecutive birthdays, beginning when I was 10. The inscription was different each year, and each quoted a phrase from Anne. My favorite is the very first, which said, “Happy Birthday! I believe you’ll find a ‘kindred spirit’ in Anne and many more in the coming years!” And, of course, she had the most beautiful handwriting, something I most definitely did not inherit!

    • Thanks Constance. Yes, he returned from “hell in Flanders” but he died when my dad was just 19. His lungs were wrecked by the poison gas they used. But he left a fine legacy.
      How wonderful to have all eight of the “Anne” books. I never knew for years that there was a series, and only now have learned that there were eight. And it’s lovely to be able to look back on those precious inscriptions. And of course, you did find a kindred spirit in Anne — as did many of us — but how lovely to have that in your book. Do you have any long black dresses as well? (One of my all-time favorite lines.)

      • Of course, I had a long black dress! The grandmother who gave me the Anne books also taught me to sew – and we made my first long black dress together shortly after I read the book. I had totally forgotten that until you asked – thank you so much, Anne! We also made me a Lady of Shalott costume which I wore to a Halloween party when in my teens – it will come as no surprise that only girls at the party knew about the Lady, and they all knew it from Anne!

  15. I’m appalled at missing out on a whole collection on Georgette Heyers. I’m the eldest of five girls and we all read Mum’s collection, as did my aunts and grandmother when they came to stay. Eventually they fell apart and we had to replace them. Now my daughter and nieces have read them too. … I read all the acknowledgements and introductions and anything else involved with a book. Partly it’s because I’m fascinated by the creativity involved and what goes into making a story and partly because I’m grateful to everyone who loves books as I do and helps in their creation and that’s my thank you. …. I remember visiting my grandmother’s house and reading books from her bookcases that had my aunts’ and uncles’ names in them – absolute proof that they really had been young once. One of my aunts gave me a whole set of the Billabong series by Mary Grant Bruce when the school library closed down. They still had lots of names in them of borrowers – fascinating. I was known as a bookworm in my family from an early age and all my presents were books and they all had birthday or Christmas messages inside. It made them especially precious if I was reminded that a particular relative had hunted down a book I really wanted. I can also
    distinctly remember my sister and I writing our names and adresses in the front of the books we had each just received. The address finished; Sydney, NSW, Australia, Earth, the Solar System, the Galaxy, the World! Just in case, I suppose.

    • Yes, every time I think of Nana’s collection of Heyers I get a bit wistful.
      I also have quite a few of the Billabong books, mostly bought second-hand when I was n adult, just because I could. And I’d enjoyed them as a child.
      Am chuckling at the long address — I suspect quite a few of us did that.
      Thanks, MarryD

  16. I recently returned two Austens (Emma, Mansfield Park) to my mother when I bought new copies. One of them had a 1950s birthday message from the friend who’d given it to her when they were both in high school. That was a real ‘memory lane’ moment, particularly as the friend died a few years ago.

  17. Thank you, Miss Anne, for your article, very entertaining and tugged at my heart! I may write my name in a book if lending it but will generally rate the book with a letter and short comment.

    • Thanks, Michelle, glad you enjoyed it.
      “will generally rate the book with a letter and short comment.”
      I’m assuming here you mean when you read an e-book, and if that’s the case, THANK YOU! Authors really depend on people rating and reviewing their books, so it’s a lovely thing to do.


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