The right book, given to the right person at the right time, can work wonders.* Spirits can be raised and horizons broadened; broken hearts can be mended, old flames rekindled, friendships reaffirmed. A book can say Sorry, and Thank You. A book can say I miss you, I love you, I forgive you; I never want to see you again.

And because reading is one of the most intimate of human activities – usually requiring silence and solitude and time – and because the interpretation of a single book will always be fluid – each reader bringing his or her own imagination, experience and emotional intelligence to bear on the text – it is not surprising that in order to share in that intimacy (albeit by proxy), or to nudge the reader towards a desired interpretation, the giver of the book will often inscribe something suitably pertinent on the flyleaf for the recipient.

As a habitual buyer of second-hand books, I came to notice that I was accidentally accruing a rather interesting subcollection of books containing such inscriptions. These messages ranged from the awkward scratchings of adolescent infatuation, to the resentful recriminations of a love affair gone sour – and all elicited a certain frisson at reading something private, often highly personal, and patently not intended for my eyes. But I like to think that there is more to this hobby than a mere bibliophilic kink. Specifically, that these dedications offer tantalizing glimpses into their host books’ secret histories, imbuing the physical objects with an emotional resonance quite independent of – or intriguingly linked to – the actual texts.

But, for me, the overriding emotion evoked by these inscriptions is one of pathos. At their most basic level all are records of human connections – or at least attempts at human connections – given added poignancy by the fact that all have been discovered among the shelves of second-hand bookshops and, for whatever reason, are no longer in the hands of the original dedicatees.

* Conversely, the wrong book given to the wrong person at the wrong time can prove disastrous.
W.B. Gooderham is a freelance writer, regularly reviewing books and contributing articles on literature to the Guardian and Time Out. He lives in London and is currently writing his debut novel. A selection of the dedications in this book have been on display in Foyles’ Bristol and Charing Cross stores.
Dedicated to…: The Forgotten Friendships, Hidden Stories and Lost Loves found in Second-Hand Books is published by Bantam Press. Read more.