Every Christmas morning, when I invariably receive a few books, a couple from Ginny, Jessica, my sister Beverly, and maybe a writer-friend from New York, I carefully and decorously unpeel the wrapping, and turn immediately to the title page. Then, because the other members of my small tribe are seated with me around the tree and want to get on with the show, I swallow my mild disappointment and hand the next present to its eager recipient.
Why am I even mildly disappointed by even the most promising, beautifully bound and intellectually challenging book given me by a person I love? I guess it's because I expect . . . no, merely hope for a personal inscription penned by the person who thought enough of me to not only buy the book I had in my lap, but to think of a short but pithy and personal inscription to hand-write on the first page.
Even though I suspect these personal inscriptions were fairly common back when a book was a fairly costly item (during the Great Depression of the 1930s, for instance) and those who gave a book as a gift were less self-conscious of their own writing ability than they are today, the inscription was never very widespread. Why?
In the old days, that is to say when children were a tad repressed and afraid to touch anything precious to their parents, an adult's book -- well, any book, for that matter -- was an object of high mystery and value. Whenever, in my sub-teen years, I picked up one of my father's handsome Heritage Club volumes . . . more to look at the illustrations, I admit, at that age, than to actually read the text, my mother was likely to stop me in my tracks and ask, "Did you wash your hands before you handled that book, Buzz? I thought I saw you out in the lot across the street playing softball in the dirt."
Yes, that's the aura of bibliographical reverence in which I grew up. And so, none of the books I received from either my mother or my father (or my Cincinnati librarian-aunt Vera, for that matter) contained an inscription. And I myself had to become a graduate student in English before I could break that sense of awe the virginal BOOK held over me. I wouldn't think of ravishing a book with a word, even if I did it with a pencil.
Still, my secret wish was that some friend or relative would someday present me with a book that had been personalized by him or her. That desire finally came true the day my steady date Ginny presented me, for no particular reason, with a small hard-bound collection of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 19th-century essays on Shakespeare's plays. The inscription, as I remember it (I can't locate it this moment to confirm my memory), was wonderfully personal, complete with verbal transcriptions of the sounds lips make when engaged in white-hot kissing.
I read her words once every 10 minutes, those precious words that threw Coleridge, Shakespeare himself, into the shadows. Oh, the girl I was to marry had desecrated a book, but how thrilling. It made the volume all the more valuable to me. Please, I thought, desecrate to your heart's content. Here's a Gutenberg Bible you might want to scribble in! Only write you love me, you yearn to kiss me again and again and again!
Writing from the heart in a book is frightfully rare.
Whenever I went to a convention at which a well-known writer was to speak and read his/her own work, I usually bought one of his/her books, for sale on a huge collapsible table outside the auditorium, then rush up to the guest afterward and ask for his/her autograph, like any smitten teenage fan. I don't know why I did this exactly, except that everyone else was doing it, and maybe, if I had the writer's autograph, it might help me understand the poem's tangled meaning.
As I inspect the collection of autographs I assembled during my 32 years of teaching at Cottey, I'm impressed by the poets' tact and willingness to commit his/her name to the keeping of someone he/she has met only 10 minutes before.
Some of the inscriptions are pretty mundane. My friend and colleague Don Perkins and I took a group of students to Pittsburg, Kansas to hear the elderly Maxine Kumin read her poetry. Afterwards, she penned in her volume "Looking for Luck" (1996), simply her autograph, nothing more, except the date, "Nov. '96." And who could blame her. Think for a second how many times a day she was asked for her autograph. I believe she's passed away. Small wonder.
In "Wild Gratitude," Edward Hirsch wrote, "To Chuck, with very high hopes for your work." I must've told him I was writing fiction on my sabbatical, under the supervision of Charles E. Cagle, of Pittsburg State. In any event, you've got to admire any writer who dares come out from behind his safe anonymity and write something even slightly personal, something that could come up behind her in later years and embarrass the hell out of her, even Jo McDougall's 1995 inscription in "Towns Facing Railroads" -- "For Charles, the friend, the poet -- Good luck with your good work."
No, these are just words written by names, little more. The inscriptions that mean the most to me are those written by friends. Mel Glenn, for instance, has been a close personal friend for half a century. We went to New York University together. Until he went off to serve in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, I chose him to be best man for my wedding. Each of us fielded baseballs hit by the other in Brooklyn's Lincoln High School's paved playground. And so, when Mel's first book was published, in 1982, it meant a lot to both of us.
"To Chuck, For all the old times.
For renewed friendship.
For your kind thoughts and warm support.
Please enjoy this book from one writer to another.
Inscriptions can be pompous, methodical, boring, or utterly charming. Try this one on for style and charm. I somehow bought a second-hand copy of the 1920's wit Alexander Woollcott's 1934 collection of moderately entertaining essays,"While Rome Burns." I'm not particularly devoted to Woollcott, but I AM a devoted fan of The New Yorker Magazine, for which he wrote back in the 1930s to 1950s. So, I bought the book, a bright red hardback selling for about 35 cents at some little store I don't remember where.
In retrospect, it was scarcely worth reading. What made the volume worth keeping was the inscription that charmed me utterly:
"Whether or not Rome Burns -- Your Grandson will always love you warmly and thank you for all you did for him on his arrival into this world. Nick, Denver, Colo., March 6, 1935."
I believe I will keep this book forever, and it's not because Woollcott's writing is particularly bright and witty. It's because in Nick's inscription to his grandfather, whatever their names, I see signs of a warm, grateful, highly literate young man I wish I'd known.