This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

March-April 2017

How to write the perfect book inscription

Consider it a gift within a gift

Grace O'Connell@yesgrace


All of us word nerds know that books make excellent gifts. Aside from obvious last-minute coffee table tomes (“I remembered how much you love generic landscape photos!”), giving someone a book means you’re trying to think from their point of view, to imagine what they might like, or to share something you love with them. It’s inescapably personal to buy someone a book (or, if you really want to tug on the heartstrings, gift them one of your own beloved volumes).

But no book is ready to be gifted without the final touch: the inscription. If it wasn’t hard enough to guess your pal or partner’s taste in books, now you have to add your own literary flourish in the form of a few lines tucked inside the cover, under the title and author’s name. Honestly? Good luck. Inscriptions are hard. Any honest author will admit that coming up with witty or memorable inscriptions on the spot at book signings is anxiety inducing. Most of us have a few go-to gems up our sleeves for moments of utter mental blankness (one author friend told me off the record that their panic reaction is to compliment the reader, so be wary of the Enjoy, Beautiful!s scrawled across those opening pages). If the book’s title offers something to riff on, all the better. But the best inscriptions are personal to the recipient and specific to the book. No pressure.

I met my partner at an event where we were both speaking and signed a copy of my book to him that day. He didn’t tell me until later that my oh-so-clever inscription—Thanks for fighting the good fight!, in reference to how his leftie political work had inspired me—has been used, word for word, on him in the past.

So how do you write a great inscription? I know it sounds like you shouldn’t trust me, given the anecdote above, but luckily I have some solid research to draw on. Though my own inscriptions have been imperfect at times, I’ve been the recipient of some pretty excellent ones. Some funny, some sentimental, some inspiring. What made the best of them the best was that they rang true to the gift giver’s own voice.

There was the never-serious friend who offered a copy of the famously gross German novel Wetlands and wrote, “I figured a sicko like you would like this… Steal what you can”; the friend who joke-gifted me Oh The Places You’ll Go, complete with a Seuss-style rhymed inscription, before I plunged forward with a bad romantic decision; the author who inscribed her book for me with the advice that I “never fucking give up.” I treasure each of these, and many other inscribed books on my shelves, because they remind me so viscerally of the people who wrote in them.

Don’t rush an inscription. Treat it as its own little story, and let it brew inside your head like a piece of fiction. Most importantly, write it somewhere other than the book first, in case you hate it. But don’t make it carry too much weight for you either—presumably you’re not being shot into space after you gift the book to your loved one, so like a short story, let the inscription be a moment in time rather than the novel of your lives as friends, sisters, lovers, whatever. And if you put thought into the book itself—and of course you did—the message behind your choice should be a silent second chapter to your inscription.

Need examples or inspiration? There is no better place to eavesdrop on good inscriptions than a secondhand bookstore. Some people consider inscribed books to be un-buyable, but (call me creepy) I consider a stranger-to-stranger inscription a bonus. Like Hemingway’s famous six-word short story (you know the one: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn”), it’s a tiny, tiny window into a life—or two. It’s fascinating to wonder how books inscribed to “my darling son” or “the love of my life” end up in a forgotten stack with $6 written in pencil on the title page. These remnants confirm that inscriptions, for all the weight they carry, are indeed a moment in time. So make your moment count.

Show Comments