Our Reading Lives

An Ode to Book Inscriptions

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Kristen McDeavitt

Staff Writer

Kristen McDeavitt is a queer writer and backpacker. After graduating from UC Berkeley with an English degree, the usual sense of adventure took them to Wyoming, Texas, and Alaska, where they currently live in a tent by a glacier.

When I knew I was in love, I gave my now-partner A Sand County Almanac. On the inside cover, the book’s spine still unbroken, I wrote, “For someone who understands.” To me, this was the ultimate gesture of affection.

Giving a book that I inscribed is something I do for my family and dearest friends. I trust that they understand the meaning behind this. We share a deep bond, yes. But more importantly, that bond is deep enough that I can expose an intimate part of myself through this book. I hope they see this vulnerability.

The books I gift have shaped me profoundly, and I want the recipients to understand how. Even though the copies I give them are new and unmarked, I hope that the readers can see what I saw in those pages, will know what I had underlined in mine.

In a way, these gifts are more about me than the people who receive them. But they are also always very personal recommendations. Confident that the receiver will enjoy the book as much as I did, I believe it will bring us closer. The reader pulls new insight and perspective from a favorite book. In the process, they enrich my knowledge of both themselves and the text.

book inscriptions

A beautiful discovery

F0r that reason, I love finding inscribed books second-hand. Searching through the shelves of a used bookstore or flipping through the dog-eared paperbacks in a thrift store, I am always on the hunt for an inscription in the front cover.

I discovered one of my favorites at a library book sale. A hardcover copy of Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, black with only a gold flamingo on the cover, caught my eye. Curious, I opened it up looking for the publication date. Instead, I found an inscription that I imagined flowing from a fountain pen: “To Shirley: One of the few people for whom I believe this book was written. Love, Jack. Christmas 1942.”

I don’t know anything about Shirley and Jack except for this one moment in their lives. I don’t know what their relationship was. (Were they newly in love or married twenty years? Was Jack trying to woo Shirley, or were they just siblings?) But from this one inscription, I imagine an entire world. My imaginings are less about this moment in time, so far from my own, than about the shared intimate world of these two people. I love inscriptions for the same reason I love good stories: they give me glimpses into the interior worlds of others.

I hope that one day my book inscriptions find their way into the hands of strangers.