An Ode to the Inscription

I strongly believe that the gift of a book is one of the best in the world. It’s the opportunity to share an experience that meant something deeply to you, show a person that you understand their likes and dislikes or to help them expand their horizons.

A related but important aspect of giving a book as a gift is writing an inscription. Why give a card when you can give a book and write your well wishes inside? True, as a book collector it can lead to an expensive first edition’s value diminished due to a scribbled note inside, but at least it was done with their heart in the right place.

Over my years of book hunting I’ve seen every variation on the theme. Parents to children, children to parents, grandparents to grandchildren, spouse to spouse, friend to friend, and on and on and on. Many times they are written in what would have been the latest bestseller passing on Christmas or birthday wishes. Sometimes it’s to note a special occasion or because someone saw a book and knew that person would love it. I’m sure many end up commemorating a failed relationship. At least the person got a book out of it.

I don’t know if authors care why someone buys their books. Perhaps they are just happy anyone at all is purchasing them, but I would think knowing your book is being given as a gift would be a great feeling. Buying a book for yourself is one thing. Thinking that someone else will enjoy a book is a leap of faith that signifies a high level of trust in the author.

These thoughts were brought on by a recent visit to a used bookstore in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The autographed copies and first editions were all overpriced but they did have a first UK edition of John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy. It was a bit beat up and inside someone had written a note indicating they were sending it from Hong Kong.

A large amount of The Honourable Schoolboy takes place in that city. The thought that this book made its way from there to the United States back when the book was first released, adds that extra bit of history that I love.

I imagine Barry, who says he works for the State department, leaving the embassy early to look for a gift for his father. He walks the streets of Hong Kong thinking about what the right gift will be. Popping into one of the many Hong Kong booksellers, forty years later many will be under siege by the Chinese government, he scans the new releases bookshelf. What will his dad like? The Shining? Song of Solomon? No, there it is, the latest le Carré. He buys it and hops on the Star Ferry to head back to his apartment. Looking out at the various boats cutting and darting through the harbor as the sun glints off the water Barry mulls over what to write. It’s been a hard year for his dad since the factory shut down. Then he has it.

So yes, it was a bit more than I would normally pay, and yes, the strict value of the book was diminished by the writing inside, but reading that inscription I suddenly imagined I was transported halfway around the world and forty years in the past. It was worth it for that.

Next time you are considering a gift I suggest you purchase a favorite book of yours, write a note inside and pass it on. It’ll offer much more enjoyment than the two seconds it takes to read a card and perhaps create a memory or two.

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