'From one naughty lady to another...'

A collection of inscriptions scribbled in books provides tantalising glimpses of human behaviour, says John Walsh
  • @johnhenrywalsh

Readers of Wayne Gooderham's bookish musings on his blog will know he has developed an obsession for the things left inside second-hand books: bookmarks, letters, postcards and, especially, written inscriptions. He has asked a number of booksellers to keep an eye out for choice examples of the last-named for him, and now publishes the results in Dedicated To… The Forgotten Friendships, Hidden Stories and Lost Loves found in Second-hand Books.

The title is a misnomer. This isn't a collection of dedications but of scribbled flyleaf inscriptions by members of the public to the person to whom they're giving the book as a present. The disjunction between the nature of the book and the tone of the inscription is sometimes hilarious. "You have given me so much," writes someone called Mark to his amour, Louise, "I have only myself to give to you. My heart, my soul and my body are at your disposal. Dispose of carefully." It sounds sweet, doesn't it? But the fact that it's written inside Roald Dahl's macabre More Tales of the Unexpected might sound a warning note in Louise's head.

It's hard to believe the naivety of the chap who gifted his lover a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four with the words: "This book was published in 1949, it was about the future 1984. I have given it to you with love in 1994, the start of our future." How lovely to associate their blissful future with totalitarianism, brainwashing, double-think and the Junior Anti-Sex League.

These heartfelt little messages offer tantalising glimpses of inchoate relationships, unrequited love, tentative sympathy – and, rather too often, a desire to show off the inscriber's poetic sensibility. ("After rough seas there is calm, for sore wounds there is a balm/ Let me hold you in my arms, and keep you safe from harm…" is inscribed by "Justin" in Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera.) The compliments offered by givers to receivers sometimes hint at intensities we'd rather not know about. On 19 March 1928, a copy of Tom Fool by F Tennyson Jesse was inscribed: "To my Stiffy, In remembrance of the anniversary of the most important day in my life. From his Slutty." Much later, a copy of Londoners by Celina Fox is genially inscribed (complete with heart pierced by an arrow) "From a selfish old slag, To a fat, lazy old cow. Two years?"

It's hard to ignore the implied homicidal collusion between two gun-lovers, when one gives the other the Shooter's Bible: The World's Standard Firearms Reference Book and writes on the title page: "To Matt, from Daniel. Happy Hunting! 'One day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets' – Taxi Driver."

And written into Flaubert's Sentimental Education, there are no names, just a whisper of girlish intimacy from 1964: "From one naughty young lady to another, hoping that your mother doesn't know that you're out and that you wear only the best woolly bloomers."

Books that have been bought by parents for errant children offer rich rewards in limpid inscription. There's a nice tone of parental sarcasm in a 1955 inscription inside Kingsley Amis's That Uncertain Feeling: "To Robert, on his crucial 30th birthday – hoping for a safe and speedy emergence from adolescence. Frank and Jackie."

The most moving parental inscription, however, is found in a copy of Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson, a tragic-comic novel published in 1939 about a young African clerk working in a British colonial district office in Nigeria. It reads: "Dear John, When I was 12 or 13 years old, Grandma became increasingly alarmed at my philistine preoccupation with science and agriculture. I remember being whisked off to the bookshop in Bury, where on my behalf she selected Mister Johnson, my first 'adult' book. It was an inspired choice – it amused me, introduced me to the joys of literature and also to the notion of an overseas colonial service. The book thus had a profound influence on my life; without it I may never have gone to Africa and you may not have been born 30 years ago. To it you probably owe your existence and it is high time you were introduced. I pass it to you in turn with much love, Dad."

Awwww. Who said literature makes nothing happen?

bookdedications.wordpress.com. Dedicated To... (Bantam Press, £9.99) is out now