A book's most meaningful words might not be author's

A book's most meaningful words might not be author's

I was digging through my bookshelf the other day, prepping materials for the start of the school year and dusting off books ready to be used again, in some cases for the 26th time. In so doing, I cracked open a book gifted to me by my aunt in 1992. Inside is the inscription she wrote 30 years ago: “To the Brettliest of Bretts, from the Merriest of Aunts … Happy 20th Birthday! Love, Aunt Mary.”

While I am sure I read that inscription when my aunt gave it to me, I have no real memory of seeing it before, even though it is a book from which I read a story or two every year to my newly formed classes. Nevertheless, it made me smile, thinking of my now 92-year-old aunt and her involvement in the childhoods of my siblings and me. She is that cool aunt many of us are lucky to have. She never married, instead living with my grandparents and taking care of them as they aged while doting on us every opportunity she got to do so.

Every visit to their home in Geneva was accompanied by a new Kenner “Star Wars” action figure left in the back sunroom upon our arrival. You know, the ones that now sell for thousands of dollars on E-Bay. Had I known then what they would eventually sell for, I might have left them unopened, but I certainly do not regret the worlds those figures helped create in the sand boxes of my youth.

For her 40th birthday, I gave my wife a first edition copy of Catherine Marshall’s “Christy.” While spelled differently, it is the book and character from which her parents chose to name her. I have never read the book but know enough to understand why that character so perfectly captures the giving spirit of the Kristi I do know.

Inside the cover is an inscription that simply reads, “To Dad from Alice … Xmas 1967.” While I know why I gifted the book to my wife and the inspiration behind what I wrote to her, I am genuinely curious about Alice’s story. What inspired her to give this book to her father? Did she see a bit of herself in the title character and, in so doing, wanted her father to see the same thing? Was it a last-minute gift idea as stores were closing on Christmas Eve in 1967? Perhaps the saddest thoughts of all: What has become of Dad and Alice, and why did the book end up in the local used book store?

With just a first name and the year of the gift being given in the inscription, these are questions I will never have the answers to. But it is fun imagining that smile on Dad’s face as he opened the book many winters ago.

Over the course of my teaching career, I have inscribed quite a few copies of Dr. Seuss’s “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” Parents, with foresight that far exceeds mine, have had elementary through high school teachers sign a note into the book that will eventually be given to their children upon graduating. With her senior year upon us, I am jealous I did not think of this when my oldest entered preschool.

I have snuck a peek to see what my elementary colleagues have written to former students, and I know how meaningful their words will be, maybe even more so long after the graduation cap has been tossed into the air.

While not an inscription in a book, my kindergarten teacher in 1977, whom I remember being nothing but kind, inscribed on my Pupil’s Progress Report to Parents, “Brett is a hard worker!! I’ve been so pleased with the way he’s working on the ‘talking anytime’ problem.”

I am not so sure, when it comes to the “talking anytime problem,” she did not confuse me with my twin sister, but I am not one to argue with a kindergarten teacher who is, assuredly, an angel on earth, especially because a year later my first-grade teacher inscribed, “Brett needs to be more quiet while working at his desk independently.” Strike two.

In a few sentences, these inscriptions captured what 5- and 6-year-old classroom me was like, images that have long since fled the long-term memory bank in my mind. They are words that might be equally as fitting inscribed in a book, in this case maybe one where the protagonist is mute.

A scroll through The Book Inscriptions Project website, a site solely focused on publishing the inscriptions written inside the covers of books and the stories they often tell, fills one with laughter and heartache. Gus inscribes words of heroism to Christine; Filipe inscribes words of beauty to Sofie; Lisa writes to an unnamed receiver of a book containing Shakespeare’s Sonnets, “I, too, have wanted more than a friendship. Always.” Inscriptions I would wager had the power to move, and maybe even motivate, the receiver.

This thought was likely the reason I wrote a note of a “hopeful, inspired imagination” to my son on his first birthday when I gifted him my favorite Batman book from my youth.

In every case, whether from a teacher, a parent, an aunt, a kindred spirit or a lover, inscriptions, in the best of ways, become part of a book’s story because they are a reminder that sometimes the most meaningful words in a book may not even come from the book’s author.