Most booksellers develop a checklist for cataloguing books. Has it got a front cover, a back cover, a spine, some pages in between, are they all attached to each other, what colour is it, when was it published, by whom, is it in good shape… We’ve catalogued thousands of books, each time running through this checklist and noting each point so that someone reading the description can ‘see’ the book without actually seeing it. We always look for bookseller’s labels, library stamps and inscriptions. I must have typed ‘previous owner’s inscription to front free endpaper’ hundreds and hundreds of times. Inscriptions, unless the book is inscribed by or to someone of note, generally detract from the overall condition of a book. Some collectors aren’t keen on them, either for the simple reason that the book is less ‘clean’ when it has been written in, or possibly from a more complicated sense that the book has a hidden story. Most inscriptions are fairly muted, casual, even; ‘for – , with love from –‘, and maybe a date. They don’t paint much of a picture, these unfamiliar names and formal dedications, though buying and presenting a book is so often a careful gesture, one given serious thought and consideration. The handwriting often conjures more of a story than the inscriptions themselves; a rounded, girlish hand but a man’s name, or a deliberate, childish hand, inscribed to a grandchild.
My young daughter has been working her way through the novels of Roald Dahl and is currently engrossed in The Famous Five (she is adamant Enid is a man’s name and thinks I am trying to trick her when I assure her Blyton was a woman.) She chose a book of animal stories from her school library which reminded me of a trilogy of books about a family of foxes I had read while growing up in Ireland. Thinking she might enjoy them but not having come across them in the many years since I read them, I had a look online to see if there were any copies still around. They are out of print now but were reprinted several times so there are plenty of them for sale. I found all the dealers with each of the three books in stock, found the most likely edition that I’d have read and bought the cheapest copies in nice condition.
They arrived this morning, not looking like much. I’d managed to buy one in a different edition so they weren’t even uniform and all three, published in the mid to late 80s, are now browned and dog-eared and with the feel of long years in storage in a box in an unheated building. I recognised the cover design of two of the books and felt the pull of my own childhood, but was also a bit professionally disappointed by their condition. Running through my checklist, I noted a previous owner’s name in the first volume. The second was very browned, but with no inscriptions. I opened the third and there, at the top of the page, was my mother’s handwriting.
‘For J- H-, with fondest love from Mummy, Christmas 1988.’ My mum, to my brother, then aged ten. I have bought the very copy I read as a child.
We moved to the UK soon after that Christmas and the book must have been donated, or sold, or given away around then and somehow, nearly thirty years later, ended up in a book depository in Milton Keynes to be bought by me for 66p for my daughter. Of course it isn’t impossible, and this isn’t the first time such a thing has happened, but the world swayed for a moment while I tried to account for it.
All the inscriptions in the books I catalogue every day bind two people together. Each formulaic dedication conceals the story of a relationship. My tatty paperback, inscribed by my mum, has no real significance or consequence, but it is strange, it has a force- small, and personal, but I will never catalogue an inscription in a book again without wondering, for a minute, about the story it doesn’t tell.