Writing in books

I wrote recently of the joys of finding annotations in books. It’s a cardinal sin to write in a library book, of course, though I do enjoy reading what other people have written in them. But it isn’t just annotations that are exciting, it’s also dedications and inscriptions.

The idea of writing one’s name inside the front cover of books was one I became aware of quite early on. There must have been a small number of books I read as a little boy that had formerly been treasured possessions of my mother in her girlhood. I don’t think I made the connection that name signifies property until later on, though. When I was 6, my teacher read a book to my class that I loved, The Chimney Witches by Victoria Whitehead. After a small amount of petitioning I was given my own copy, inside the cover of which I proceeded to write my teacher’s name in felt-tip, so that it would resemble her copy. She didn’t write as messily as I did, though, and only wrote her name once rather than multiple times.

As a child I compensated for not having neat, adult handwriting by contriving an intentionally messy signature, which is present in most of my Roald Dahl books. If a book was particularly special – a large book or a hardback – and I wanted to write my name inside it, I took precautions to write neatly. For Christmas in 1990 my paternal grandparents gave me a marvellously enlightening and informative encyclopaedia – overinformative, they might have said, if they had looked at the section at the back on the human body containing graphic colour illustrations of the rogering process. I wrote my name inside, along with the date and occasion, though my inscription was spoiled rather by smudges. This will always be one of the perils of being left-handed. When I wrote my name inside books as a teenager, I would write it in the top left-hand corner of the inside cover, rather than on the first recto page, in order to avoid creasing the cover.

Half of the second-hand books I buy have people’s names inside them, but a personal dedication is a special thing that I find it doubly difficult to resist. Once it contains a personal message, a book becomes an artefact. When I was 13 I went to see John Hegley at the Traverse during the Edinburgh Festival, and queued up to have my copy of Glad to Wear Glasses signed by him. He misheard my name and was halfway through ‘Darren’ before I had a chance to correct him. He disguised his mistake with the greatest of ease.

An expected annotation

But somehow the mystery of messages by people one doesn’t know has a power of its own. The 2001 Match annual came out at about the time I decided I was too old to keep reading the magazine, but I couldn’t resist buying a copy of it from a Cambridge charity shop about three years ago after I opened it and saw, alongside a passport photo of a sweet-looking girl, the message:

To Tom
You were my first friend in
I will miss you.
I hope someone nice moves
into my house for you to play
Best wishes

I suppose Tom and Lauren are now doing their A levels, or at university somewhere or other.

Our library copy of Christopher Headington’s biography of Peter Pears bears the inscription:

Dear Jonathan
This is your coming down,
out, and hopefully up present.
Read it, beware + be happy.
Aug 1992

I wonder what circumstances led this book away from its owner and into an academic library. It can be heartbreaking to think of the people who have fallen away somewhere, got lost in history. But better here than in a charity shop, I thought when I discovered it.

It occasionally happens that one finds a book from many years ago bearing the author’s signature, or even the signature of other famous people. I am informed that on seeing the manuscript of Austen’s Sanditon one of our students began jumping up and down. What happened to me this week was less common. I bought in a library book sale a copy of The Cambridge Companion to Ravel, and didn’t realise until I got home that there were sparing pencil annotations throughout. On closer inspection the handwriting had a familiar, distinctive quality, and the style of the comments left me in little doubt that this was a book annotated personally by composer and academic Robin Holloway. The annotations give an indication not only of the man’s opinions but also of his amiably arch sense of humour: “a flat-footed pedestrian”, “this man’s an idiot”, “feeble anodyne tosh”, and so on.

An unexpected annotation

Social historian Joe Moran wrote a customarily interesting piece on ebooks recently. I’m not someone who is particularly violently opposed to the idea of digital books. I acknowledge, for instance, that they possess convenient attributes that paper books don’t, like instant searchability and economy of storage, though I don’t feel the slightest inclination to buy a Kindle or any such contraption for myself. It’s plainly obvious, though, that in terms of personality the paper book and the ebook are poles apart. How utterly impersonal the Kindle is. Nothing chronicled in this post above would exist if our books were all in electronic form.

Stephen Fry released his latest book last month in multiple formats – hardback, audiobook, ebook, iPhone app. I wondered before going to meet him and have my book signed what he would do if it were on an iPad. Sign the back, I suppose. But who cares about the back of a book when all that matters is what’s inside?


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7 Responses to “Writing in books”

  1. theboobblog2 Says:

    You say, “It’s a cardinal sin to write in a library book.” I say, I think you should try it. Of course do not get out of control or the library will catch you, but every once and a while the book just needs a little extra something.

  2. Gareth Says:

    I did it once to correct what I thought was a factual error, and now wonder if perhaps the book was right and I was wrong. I wake from nightmares that I may have misled the innocent and unsuspecting. So library book annotation has not become a habit, but I can never completely rule out the possibility of relapsing.

  3. argumentativeoldgit Says:

    I’d be happy to tell you of some of the annotations I made in the margins of my copy of “The Shadow of the Wind”, but I’m not sure whether you’d welcome obscene language on your blog.

  4. Gareth Says:

    Yes, I think I will respectfully decline your offer…

  5. Ann Says:

    In my library there are a group of people who perhaps like to chronicle what they have been reading for each other’s benefit. I often see books with a list of initials inside so I assume that is what they are doing! Perhaps they are an alzeimers group who can never remember what they have or have not read.

  6. Gareth Says:

    I’m sure it’s quite common for people, especially those who read a lot of books in series or particular genres, to put their initials inside library books to help them work out whether they should borrow a book or not. I have to keep a record of which of the Jeeves books I’ve read, otherwise I have no doubt I would forget. I might contemplate erasing or obliterating such annotations if I were a vindictive man and working in a public library, but fortunately I’m not and I don’t.

  7. Mike A Says:

    As a child I had numerous ladybird books inscribed with the legend ‘mice’ on the flyleaf. Blissfully ignorant of the oddities of the English language (not to mention the added complication of capital letters), I had assumed this must be the correct spelling of ‘Mike’. To this day, my wife addresses my birthday cards and suchlike to ‘mice’.

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