Long ago, when George and I were not yet lovers but seemed to be tottering in that general direction, we gave each other our first Christmas presents. Of course, they were books. Knowing that I liked bears, George gave me The Biography of a Grizzly, by Ernest Thompson Seton. Modestly sequestered on the third page was the following inscription: To a new true friend. No Talmudic scholar, no wartime cryptographer, no deconstructionist critic ever scrutinized a text more closely than I did those five words, hoping that if they were just construed with the right emphasis (“To a new true friend,” “To a new true friend,” “To a new true friend”), they would suddenly reveal themselves as a declaration of undying devotion.
Knowing that George liked fish, I gave him Old Mr. Flood, by Joseph Mitchell, a slim volume of stories about the Fulton Fish Market. The author had autographed the book himself in 1948, but did I leave well enough alone? Of course not. I wrote To George, with love from Anne. Then I mistranscribed a quotation from Red Smith. And finally—on the principle that if you don’t know what to say, say everything—I added 15 lines of my own reflections on the nature of intimacy. My cumulative verbiage, not to mention the patency of my sentiments, exceeded George’s by a factor of approximately 20 to 1. It’s a miracle that the book, its recipient, and the new true friendship weren’t all crushed under the weight of the inscription.
Unfortunately—since George married me anyway and has retained his affection for both fish and Joseph Mitchell—my words were preserved for good. Unlike a card that accompanies, say, a sweater, from which it is soon likely to part company, a book and its inscription are permanently wedded. This can be either a boon or a blot. As Seumas Stewart, the proprietor of an antiquarian bookshop in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, has observed, “Imagine how delightful it would be to possess an edition of Thomson’s The Seasons with this authenticated inscription: To my dear friend John Keats in admiration and gratitude, from P.B. Shelley, Florence, 1820. Imagine, too, how depressing to have an otherwise fine first of Milton’s Paradise Lost with this ballpoint inscription scrawled on the title page: To Ada from Jess, with lots of love and candy floss, in memory of a happy holiday at Blackpool, 1968.”
My inscription, a specimen of the candy-floss school, did not improve Old Mr. Flood in the same way that, for example, To Miss Elizabeth Barrett with the Respects of Edgar A. Poe improved The Raven and Other Poems or that Hans Christian Andersen / From his friend and admirer / Charles Dickens / London July 1847 improved The Pickwick Papers. In the bibliomane’s hierarchy, such holy relics of literary tangency eclipse all other factors: binding, edition, rarity, condition. “The meanest, most draggle-tailed, foxed, flead, dog-eared drab of a volume” (as the critic Holbrook Jackson once wrote) is instantly transfigured by an inscription with a sufficiently distinguished pedigree. Whose hands could fail to tremble while holding the well-worn copy of Corinne, by Madame de Staël, on whose flyleaf Byron wrote a 226-word mash note to the Marchesa Guiccioli that ends, “I more than love you, and cannot cease to love you. Think of me sometime when the Alps and the ocean divide us,—but they never will, unless you wish it”? (Now that’s the sort of thing I wouldn’t have minded finding inside The Biography of a Grizzly.)
Before the advent of store-sponsored book signings, most readers got a book inscribed by mailing it to the author and praying that it would make a round trip. The first edition of On Forsyte ’Change that I saw recently in a secondhand bookstore had obviously made a fruitful circuit. On the title page, in small, formal handwriting—the work of a fountain pen—were the words Inscribed for C.F. Sack cordially by John Galsworthy, Oct 6, 1930. Presumably, Galsworthy didn’t know C.F. Sack from Adam, and he didn’t pretend to. But what are we to make of To Owen—Love + Kisses—Brooke Shields XX (to quote from the title page of On Your Own, glimpsed in another bookstore)? I feel certain that Ms. Shields had no more intention of kissing Owen than Galsworthy had of kissing C.F. Sack—the fact that she signed her full name is a dead giveaway—but that was no deterrent. Her panting communication, written in black felt-tip pen, filled half the page. (I can report, after a close study of the celebrity-autograph department of New York’s Strand Bookstore, that the felt-tip pen has achieved near-total hegemony. Barbara Cartland writes in pink, Ivana Trump in purple, and Francine du Plessix Gray in green.)
My friend Mark O’Donnell, whom I consider the nonesuch of inscribers, would never stoop to such tactics. At a signing party for his collection Vertigo Park, he came up with something different for each postulant: Dear Reader, I love you (an ironic homage to the Shields genre); No time to write—Life in dang——; and the most heartfelt of all, Thank you for shopping retail.
Maggie Hivnor, the paperback editor of the University of Chicago Press, once told me that when she adds an out-of-print title to her list, she calls the author and asks for a pristine copy that can be photographically reproduced. “The author is usually a man,” she explained. “In a few weeks, a beautifully kept copy of his book arrives, a little dusty perhaps but otherwise absolutely perfect. And on the title page it invariably says To Mother.”
Now that’s a real inscription. The best thing about it is that until the editor’s call, the book that it ennobled reposed precisely where it should have: in a place of honor on Mother’s shelf. And there it shall return. How melancholy, by contrast, are the legions of inscribed copies one finds in any used-book rack, each a memorial to a betrayed friendship. Do the traitors believe that their faithlessness will remain secret? It won’t. Hundreds of people will witness it, including, on occasion, the inscriber. Shaw once came across one of his books in a secondhand shop, inscribed To ——— with esteem, George Bernard Shaw. He bought the book and returned it to ———, adding the line, With renewed esteem, George Bernard Shaw.
I once saw a copy of Mayflower Madam inscribed by Sydney Biddle Barrows To Patrick—Richard has told me so much about you. Henry Miller could have written an entire novel about that inscription. It would take Turgenev to write a novel about the inscription I found in The Golden Book: The Story of Fine Books and Bookmaking. It read: To Father on his birthday, March 16, 1928. In the nature of a peace offering? Alan. After 67 years, that heartbreaking question mark still hangs in the air. I only hope that The Golden Book found its way to a bookseller long after Father’s death. If not, Father, shame on you.
Reprinted from Civilization, Jan-Feb 1996.