The gift of inscriptions

Guest Post by Tony Shelley

I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to.

Helene Hanff

My love for old books goes back to the late 1950s, when I used to scour the bookshelves of my grandmother on my father’s side, every time we went there for Sunday tea.

I was an enthusiastic reader from about the age of four, but it wasn’t just the content that fascinated the mind of this small child, a book with inscriptions set my mind ablaze, as to who wrote it and why?

In later life, when I began to collect old books, mostly from charity shops, and ‘bargain boxes’, I deliberately sought out those with an inscription, message, school or college sticker, or even a ‘stamp’, detailing where the book lived or came to rest.

Inscriptions for me are a micro history, a fragment of somebody’s emotional outlet to another human being—reaching out with a few freehand lines, maybe a kiss or a coded message of affection?

The images here are from my own collection, which I’ve amassed over three decades, all housed in a ninety-year-old cabinet, recently restored by my wife, Cathy, during Lockdown. I’m certain that there are more hand written lines and scribbles awaiting discovery in my ever growing collection.

This coming Winter, I will be delving more deeper than ever before. There is, as an old English teacher once told me, ‘a delight in discovery’.

I chose these particular inscriptions, because I read them every Christmas Eve, imagining they are presents to be opened the next day. What was the festive season like in say, 1947, did the giver save up especially to purchase this book? Was it opened on a cold, Christmas morning, and read throughout the day? More often than not, I go through my book collection every Christmas Day, and spend a few minutes, as I feel they are now, precious gifts for me to enjoy.

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