Thursday, December 22, 2011

Secondhand books can be revealing

"The secret histories of secondhand books"

The personal dedications one finds in secondhand books are often as fascinating as the text. In honour of this, we're starting a new series showcasing my most intriguing finds


Wayne Gooderham

December 21st, 2011

CDs, DVDS, and e-reads are all well and good when it comes to gift-giving at Christmas, but as far as I'm concerned, for sheer emotional wallop, the old-fashioned physical book is hard to beat. After all, it's the ideal opportunity to foist a well-loved novel onto someone who is now morally obliged to read the thing (and, indeed, profess to like it). Furthermore, there is generous scope / enough rope to let a carefully-chosen book speak volumes about how you feel about the receiver. For this reason, no book-as-gift is complete without a handwritten dedication on its inside cover to further make it clear, just in case there was any doubt, that the recipient absolutely MUST READ THIS BOOK AT THE EXPENSE OF ALL OTHERS!!!

With this in mind, about a year ago I wrote a piece for the Guardian confessing my bibliophilic kink of hanging around secondhand bookshops in the hope of picking up and taking home with me one or more of these discarded gifts – and the more candid the dedication within the better. These dedications offer fascinating glimpses into their books' own secret histories, imbuing the physical objects with an emotional resonance independent of – or intriguingly linked to – the actual texts. For, often, the choice of book coupled with the message within can suggest a narrative of its own. (Such as the copy of Jean-Paul Sartre's Words, addressed to "mummy" with the instructions that she "read it all without prejudice", including, one presumes, the cover artwork with its text reading: "I loathe my childhood and all that remains of it.") In the 12 months since my original piece, my kink – driven by a combination of love of stories and plain old human curiosity (tinged with an element of voyeurism, no doubt) – has blossomed into a fully-fledged habit. It has given birth to a blog and now, a new series which will look at a different secondhand book and dedication from my collection each fortnight.

All of which raises an ethical question. It was fine when the books were kept for my own private perusal, but I did feel a twinge of conscience when it came to presenting them to the world wide web via my blog and now to (presumably) a slightly larger audience here. After all, these messages – be they the gauche outpourings of an adolescent's heart or the bitter recriminations of a jilted lover – were intended for the eyes of the dedicatees only; did I have any right to show them to the world? But my reasoning was that the fact that they are no longer in the dedicatees' possession means that – for whatever reason – they have been given away for re-sale and have therefore passed, as it were, into the public domain. Some may have been accidentally lost through no fault of the owner – but to counter this, here could be a chance to reunite said owner with the lost book. So please: if you spot a dedication you recognise, let me know. I'd love to reunite you with your book.

For now, though, since tis the season to be jolly, let's start with something heartwarming – though not entirely pathos-free. The first book appears to be a present from a child to their father, who brilliantly describes his gift as "a short letter with 300 pages attached".

This, surely, is the essence of what these books are about. As such, may any books you receive this Sunday contain a dedication just as heartfelt. And if you're doing the giving, may you choose your words just as carefully.

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