Do you ever pull a book off your shelf, crack it open, and find an old inscription written by the person who gave it to you?
I’m not talking about that illegible autograph from “Mr Famous Authorpants” you got that one day when you waited in line for 3 hours at Barnes & Noble.
I’m talking about that note from your favorite uncle who gave you his well-worn copy of Catch-22. You know, that summer you started started shaving and you were learning to drive stick:
August 1992. For David. Finally you’re man enough to appreciate some real fiction. Enjoy, Uncle Jim.”
Giving someone a book with a personalized message written inside is one of the most thoughtful gifts you can give.
Why Inscribe Books You Give As Gifts?
First of all, a book in itself is a great gift. Presumably, the reason you’re giving someone a book is because you’ve read it, you enjoyed it, and you think they might enjoy it as well. Or, you’ve done some research about the book, and you think it marries well with the person’s interests. Point is, giving someone a book is one of the more personal gifts you can give. But if you give a book without inscribing it with a personal message, you’re missing an opportunity.
To use a really bad, modern day example: it’s like forwarding someone an email attachment of something you think is really special and leaving the body of the email completely blank. And now imagine that email attachment was supposed to be someone’s birthday present. Seems a bit lazy, doesn’t it? And not very personal. For the recipient, a book inscription becomes a dusty little time capsule that reminds them of a certain time or a special person in their life. And it makes the book greater than just a collection of yellowing pages, thread, glue and cardboard. It becomes a treasured keepsake.
When Should You Inscribe a book?
I think ANYTIME you give a book as a gift you should inscribe it. So, really any occasion when you’d give a gift, like a Hannukah, Christmas, birthdays, graduation, anniversaries…The recipient doesn’t even need to be able to read yet. In fact, some of the more touching inscriptions are in babies’ books, when the gift giver consciously writes a note that will be read and understood years later. The only time you may want to avoid inscribing a book is if you’re buying someone a college textbook you know will be exchanged after they finish a class. In this case, it can actually be fun for the student themselves to inscribe the book for future recipients:
But What if Inscribing It Messes Up the Book?
Some people say you should NEVER inscribe a book when you give it as a gift, because it can’t be undone. One group of naysayers thinks, “Well, what if they don’t want the book, and they decide to return it?” The other group of naysayers says you shouldn’t inscribe a book—especially if it’s rare or vintage—because it could ruin the resale value. Well, I think both of those ideas are crazy. Is it possible the recipient’s not going to love the book and want to return it? Sure, but it doesn’t mean you need to keep it devoid of all personalization. It’s shame if they want to return your gift. But worst case, they can always send it off to a used bookstore.
I’m amazed at the number of books filled with thoughtful inscriptions that people have just tossed aside. On a positive note, it can be a real treasure to find a used book with someone else’s personal inscription, like some of the examples below. It’s like a little window into someone else’s world. As far as the issue of “resale value,” if you’re buying a book for a collector who’s into books for the “financial investment,” maybe you should let them buy their own rare and valuable books. You can just focus on finding them a THOUGHTFUL book you can inscribe with a personal message. Who cares if it’s not going to be worth a ton of money? That’s not the point. The point is that you thought of them. Or if you really think they’ll still end up using your book as a potential “collector’s item” for resale, use the cheat below under “Where Should I Inscribe a Book?”
What Should You Write in the Inscription?
The book inscription is all about adding a personal touch to an already (at least hopefully) thoughtful gift. But it can also serve a practical purpose. The tone of the inscription can vary widely, from serious to humorous, to…downright weird. Regardless, the best book inscriptions do one or more of the following:
1. Document when the book was given and who gave it
2. Explain why this particular book is meant for the recipient
3. Say what the giver thought was special about it
4. Wish the recipient well on a particular occasion
5. Provide some life advice
6. Echo an idea in the book, often through a quote
7. Serve as a time capsule for posterity—especially once the recipient is no longer around
8. Contain enigmatic riddles or random musings
Where Should You Inscribe a book?
The best place to inscribe a book is traditionally the top of the inside cover page or inside cover. The point is to find one of the early pages in the book that does not have too much extraneous text, so the inscription stands out. If you think the recipient is really going to be bothered by you writing in the book, you can use a tasteful insert using a separate piece of stationary (this trick works well for the fussy collector as well). But the problem is, you risk it being lost. And that would be a shame for someone who really means to hold onto it.
The Inscribed Book as Greeting Card
Although I haven’t personally seen it done, I’ve read about forward-thinking folks who are starting to use inscribed books in place of greeting cards. I have to admit, it sounds like a pretty cool idea. If you’re going to use an off-the shelf greeting card with someone else’s words printed in it, why not go a step further and give them an entire book worth of someone else’s words—especially if it’s a classic they might enjoy. Just so long as you personalize the note upfront…Then instead of having a hallmark card they throw in a box or a drawer, they can put the book on their shelf and admire it for a lifetime. Has anyone ever inscribed a book for you? What did it say? Please share in the comments section!