When my siblings and I were clearing out my dad’s bookshelves (he died earlier this year), I made sure to keep any books in which I’d written a personal dedication to him. For some reason I baulked at the idea of them passing into the hands of strangers, or just being left to languish in the anonymous corners of charity bookshops. Worse than that would have been copies of my own novels, dedicated on the title page to ‘Dad’. (‘So even his own father didn’t bother keeping them…’)
Why do we write dedications in books? I understand it as a romantic gesture: a way to show off your tremendous good taste to someone you fancy. But as for ordinary occasional presents, the custom is slightly mysterious; it’s not as if many of us wrote messages on CDs or, earlier, LPs. I tended to include dedications in books more often in my younger years. Experience has taught me to hold back. There is one particular howler that I can hardly bear to look at. It’s a hardback copy of Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes, which I gave as a Christmas present to my mother. It reads: ‘Christmas 1984. To Mum, With Fond Regards, Tony.’ Fond regards!? What kind of faux-Edwardian toss is that from a loving son? I don’t recall Mum ever mentioning it, possibly out of embarrassment.
Scrolling through used-book websites it’s interesting to see how booksellers will drily note in the contents box ‘inscription on flyleaf’, as if that were a drawback, like ‘fading on spine’. But in fact the presence of a personal inscription would make me more likely to buy it, not less. I cherish certain books of mine simply for their dedications. Some are laconic, like ‘To Moss from Pig [or is it Rig?] Christmas 1963’ inside Cyril Connolly’s Previous Convictions.