I recently posted a photo of Selby’s Joke Book by Duncan Ball to Instagram as part of an ongoing #bookcovers and #firstsentences series (you might like to read Celebrating 200 Instagram Posts for more background on these posts). The Selby book is from my teenage son’s bookshelf. I must have read it to him at bedtime many years ago. Or perhaps it was one of his early independent-readers? Sadly, nowadays, my sixteen-year-old is glued to YouTube and won’t read a book for himself, let alone let dad read to him!
When I opened the cover of Selby’s Joke Book, I saw inscriptions which told me the book had belonged to a young girl, Grace, before my son. That’s not surprising, I bought a lot of his books second-hand and similarly have “gifted on” many of his less cherished children’s books. Judging by the handwriting in pencil, phonetic spelling, and her knock-knock joke, Grace was very young when she owned and wrote in the book:
“Knock, konck. Whoes there. Me. Me who. Don’t you now me.” (sic)
Grace is now a young woman, making her mark in New York. Her writing in Selby’s Joke Book is a reminder to middle-aged parents like me of how quickly the childhood years pass by. And of the importance of books in the lives of young children — oh, how I wish books still held that special place in my teenager’s life!
The inside cover of Selby also underscores how inscriptions can be time-and-place stories in their own right, like an Ernest Hemingway six-word story. I took a photo of Grace’s knock-knock joke and shared it with her and her mum — both responded they’d laughed and Grace’s mum confessed she’d cried!
All are more than six-words in length. But as with the six-word genre, if your book-reader/writer’s mind works like mine, then you can imagine the story behind the inscriptions:
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Jacqueline Whiteley, 4 III, sends love to all who want it.
Watership Down by Richard Adams
Auntie Joan, With lots of love & best wishes for a speedy recovery. October 1976
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Awarded to Fanny [Papper] for an Essay on ‘What I saw during [the holidays]’. Sept 1911
Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence
To Dr Mackezie, A small token but showing a great appreciation, From all at Wales Coast. April 1937
The Prophet by Kahill Gibran
My Dearest Brother Nick, Hoping you get as much pleasure from this book as I have, Carolyn. Christmas 1969
The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond
Dear Josh, this book looks really interesting and I just thought it would be cool and useful for someone whose life has been committed to the attainment of useless information. Happy 26th birthday, Love Dave
I too have written inscriptions in books I’ve given to friends and family. My favourite (predictably) is one I wrote in 50 Great Bedtime Stories for 4 to 6 years-olds, Edited by Fiona Waters, which I gave to my son on his birth:
Dear Jaiden, My first present to you does not have bells and whistles, nor coloured flashing lights. But it is designed to capture your attention and fire your imagination. It is a book, and I promise to read it to you every night, Love Robert (your daddy). 2/6/2002
As I’ve admitted elsewhere, like all new dads, I underestimated the challenge of a newborn child and overestimated my ability to cope — I didn’t keep my promise.
However, I take solace in the knowledge inscriptions aren’t meant to state lofty goals. They’re a snapshot in time and place, and a record of the emotions felt by the writer.
And even if we don’t know the individuals involved, with a little imagination, we can reconstruct the story behind the words and names on the page. Whether it’s a knock-knock joke, wishing someone a Merry Xmas-Happy Birthday-speedy recovery, or sharing and hoping to inspire the love of reading books.
Do you have a favourite inscription?
© 2018 Robert Fairhead
NB. This post is also published on TallAndTrue.com. You might also be interested in an earlier blog post, Bedtime Stories and Teenage Readers (June 2018), where I wrote about the book I bought for my newborn son and how his reading habits changed over the years.
Welcome to the blog posts and selected writing of a middle-aged dad and dog owner. Robert Fairhead is writer and editor at Tall And True, an online showcase and forum for writers, readers and publishers. His book reviews and other writing have appeared in various print and online media. And he has published two collections of short stories, Both Sides of the Story (2020) and Twelve Furious Months (2021).