Special to the Tribune-Star
I don’t think it’s a secret that I value books as one of life’s great joys; “I am, therefore I read,” could be a T-shirt-worthy motto of mine. Besides reading them, my wife and I also collect them; some to give away, others to keep as long as we breathe.
Buying books has become nearly an addiction for us; just ask our floor joists as they moan every time we return home from a trip to our favorite bookstore, or our children, who ultimately will have more than a few of our keepers on their hands.
Among the most endearing things about used books for us are the inscriptions we find inside their covers. We buy a good many “pre-owned” books at stores and auctions and garage sales — have quite a few given to us, too — and we’ve often found them to have been inscribed by givers to readers under all circumstances and of all ages.
Whether they’ve been gifts at Christmas or birthdays, for children or sweethearts or dear old friends, a good inscription can make a book special, can help bring it to life, can provide intrigue and interest and motivation to even the most reticent reader.
Some of them make us feel a little sad, too, for we know that the book was given in sincerity or love, yet tossed aside thoughtlessly by someone who forgot that a grandparent or parent gave them the book years before. Of course, in many cases, there simply was no one left to take ownership of the books, and they’ve been tossed into boxes to mildew in damp basements.
As much as I’ve tried to like e-books, I still feel that a real book is a thing made of paper and ink and glue; they are physical, as well as intellectual things — we can feel them, touch them, hear them… I’ve published a few books, myself, and plan to get after writing another this summer — a book from scratch, as opposed to a collection of stories. So, I spend considerable time, pen in hand, inscribing copies for people who buy them, and for those to whom one is given. It’s my hope that the readers stop to read the inscription I’ve left for them, for I truly do mean “Best Wishes” when I sign one with those words. Of course, they may have to decipher my scribbles before they know it.
I have trouble thinking of good original inscriptions for my books. One of my biggest concerns is that I might misspell a name or omit a crucial word, particularly in the rush when I have interested buyers waiting in a line for their turn at the table. I refuse to hand to a reader a book in which I’ve committed some egregious error — an inscription ruined by a sudden loss of ink or an inadvertent smear made as I’ve dragged a hand across a page. “A few stories from my home to yours,” reads one of my favorite inscriptions. I mean that, too, for it is an honor to hand a book to a reader and know it is going home to live with them.
Although there are thousands and thousands of books on countless shelves for me to read for the first time, I have to admit that pulling a book off of my own, then opening it to see an inscription, makes me want to re-read it all over again. That happened to me just yesterday. Despite having a stack of books in my house that I have yet to tap into — my wife claims my now-infamous piles are actually booby-traps that collapse when only she walks by them — I pulled a copy of David McCullough’s “Truman” off a cabin shelf and opened it to see my brother’s familiar, perfect handwriting: “To Brother Mike … Happy Birthday! Sept. ’92,” it read. I recalled, just for an instant, how much I enjoyed that book, all 992 pages of it, and even where I spent a few of my days reading it. It made me want to sit in lamplight and start it again, but I appreciated even more that it was my big brother who gave me the book.
One of the first books ever given to me as a gift, besides those from my mother, came from Ruth Hallett, the wonderful lady who helped me start my life as a teacher many years ago. Before I left her mothering care — she suspected I had never stayed away from home for long, but had to while I did my practice teaching — she gave me a copy of the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, for she knew I loved his short stories. “Best wishes for a future in teaching,” she wrote. “I have enjoyed getting to know you.” I’ve been told that dear Mrs. Hallett still volunteers her time at the school, and that wouldn’t surprise me at all. Her inscription still makes me think of her and that school and those days.
I have become somewhat enamored with a website called the “Book Inscriptions Project” (www.bookinscriptions.com), a site dedicated to the art of writing messages in books, which shouldn’t be confused with merely signing a book or autograph collecting. There are hundreds of images of book inscriptions on the site, started 12 years ago after its founder, Shaun Raviv, discovered a particularly intriguing message inscribed in a used book. I’ve spent a lot of time on that site just scrolling through inscriptions, realizing that it isn’t always the author of a book who is sharing the wisdom or knowledge or plot.
I have to be careful; once I start writing about the feel of a book in my hands or the countless hours I’ve spent curled up like an old cat enjoying one in the quiet of my house, I can go on and on. There’s more to life than good books, but I have to say that, for me anyway, a good life has always included them. Knowing that many of my books were given to me by people who knew I’d be enjoying them, and telling me so inside their front covers, well, that just makes the reading that much better.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory
email@example.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Go to his website at www.mike lunsford.com to learn more about his books.