On her thirteenth birthday, April (Isla Fisher) in the film Definitely, Maybe receives a copy of Jane Eyre with an inscription from her father. A few weeks later she loses her father in a car accident. Life moves on, April moves on, but the book is lost. So, April spends years looking through copies of Jane Eyre in second-hand stores hoping to find her lost copy. In her quest, she begins collecting copies that belonged to others and were given away or lost. The ones with inscriptions holding a special place for her. When she finds the copy given by her father, or when the book finds her, she is given more than she was looking for.
My first book with an inscription was a lovely illustrated book called Dick Whittington. The book was a birthday present, on my seventh birthday. The inscription written in a blue ink that matched the cover says, “Many happy returns of the day.” The writing has faded, as have the faces of those who gave me the book. But I can still make out their names and there lingers a faint memory of childhood.
Inscription, the noun, comes from the verb inscribe that means to engrave or carve or etch. Leave a mark. Knowingly or unknowingly, the people who leave behind these inscriptions leave a little part of themselves within the object, in this case, the object being books. The words, names, messages of goodwill, affections and love are the strings that pull us back along the time stream of our own lives. Books with inscriptions are time-capsules. They are like “…a magic carpet that flies you off elsewhere…a door. You open it. You step through.” (Jeannette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?)
One day, you are rummaging around in your cupboard and suddenly a book falls down. You plop it open and there you see a writing you have not seen in a long time, neither the person. But the book is still here, with a message written in it that says there was once someone who thought about you when they saw the book and cared enough to give it to you. A splash of happy nostalgia to a seemingly mundane day.
Oddly, Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink was my second inscribed book, with a message written in the corner of the first page. The message was crisp and short: “Happy Birthday.” Another birthday present, coincidentally. It was from my father on my—I don’t remember now—just one of my innumerable birthdays. I remember him asking me what I wanted. The nerd that I was (or still am), I muttered “A book…” It was more of a question than an assertion of a want. My father gave me the book that he had in his hand. Not before writing “Happy Birthday” in his elegant cursive writing.
There was no poetic or sentimental reason attached to the choice of the book, as was the case with April in Definitely, Maybe. It was a spur of the moment gesture on my father’s part. When my father gave me Gladwell’s Blink, the book had not yet acquired its history, its significance in my life. No, Blink did not help me navigate the uncertain terrains of teenage years. Hell, I hardly understood half the concepts of the book then. But over time the book has become a portal that takes me back, however momentarily, to a time and place when I had just started out being the person that I am now. The book is perfect though. Blink and lo! I am seventeen again.
As it became evident over time to people around me that I would rather drown in a book than in margaritas, books as gifts started coming into my life thick and fast. I am not complaining. The more, the merrier. One of my favorites is a second-hand copy of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian given by a good friend. It was, again, a birthday gift. My friend has tucked in a lovely note inside the book. Although we now live miles apart in different cities, the book is a reminder of the fun friendship we shared. The book is funny. And whenever I sit down to re-read it, I’m happily let the book engulf me in Marina Lewycka’s witty words and the warmth of my friend’s gesture.
Then, there are books that were given to me at a time when my life went through plot twists. Like the one my sister gave me when I started my first job as a reluctant copy editor: The Elements of Style. Or when I decided to chuck a cushy software job to pursue my aspirations in publishing, my friends gave me Damon Galgut’s wonderfully written Arctic Summer. These books celebrate the times when I was brave enough to take paths less traveled. They remind me of a strong version of me who was ready to face head on the results of her decisions. They remind me of people who cared and stood by me. Some stayed and some moved away, as it happens when life gets in the way. The books, they all stayed back.
Sepia-tinted photographs and shaky home videos capture memories and moments for posterity. So do the books that we give one another, with minuscule parts of us in sometimes awkward and sometimes graceful writing in eloquent words or just a pithy “Happy Birthday”. These are the fragments of your history. They are your treasure. These books were picked just for you; they are the mementos of your life given by people who are and were as precious as the books themselves. Each one holding an equally significant place in your heart, life, and bookshelf. Keep them in safe places. Or let go of them if you have the heart. For like April, after you have wandered around looking for them, you might find more than you were looking for.