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Dedicated to the one the author loves ... or the highest bidder

The dedication page of a book is to readers what fingerprints are to the police.

The work in question may be an erudite history or a child's bedtime story but with the possible exception of memoirs – and I say possible, because I think the rule probably holds even for them – most authors generally prefer to hide themselves from direct public view.

That's why this page is revealing, sometimes unwittingly so. Of course, sadly for the snoops among us, that inviting space often looks empty because the shy, recalcitrant or utterly friendless choose to adorn it with nothing more than a name or a couple of initials. Yet you would be amazed how much can be conveyed even in shorthand. After years of close study of these cryptic messages, I'm confident I can tell the bubbly and effusive from the dutiful or lonely. That's why I always start a book at this page. Yet while I belong to the taciturn school myself when it comes to displays of affection in print, I enjoy, perhaps even envy, those unabashed in showing their feelings.

Writers who proffer a billet doux to their loved one are to be applauded. Those who add mention of beloved pets soar even higher in my estimation. If their work subsequently turns out to be a disappointment, I still classify them among the hopefuls whose next book might be better, all the while excusing their literary inadequacies with the thought that the affection they no doubt lavish daily, indeed hourly, on their nearest and dearest has kept them from the masterpiece they might have written had their hearts been made of stone and the dishes left unwashed, or the car untaxed.

I came on one of my favourite dedications a few weeks ago, in Dwight Macdonald's brilliant anthology Parodies, in which writers as diverse as EB White and Max Beerbohm ape the style of the masters. "If burlesque is pouring new wine into old bottles," Macdonald wrote, "parody is making new wine that tastes like the old but has a slightly lethal effect." Macdonald was American, but his dedication hints at an old Scottish soul: "To my dear sons Michael and Nicholas without whose school bills this anthology would not have been made."

I doubt there's a writer alive who would not identify with the wry implication that hack work, even of such superior calibre, is essential if one is to live to fill in another tax return. I suspect virtually every work of literature could truthfully carry a similar message.

Interestingly, in past centuries readers would automatically have turned to the dedication, but for less idle reasons than me. In the 18th century this page was out for hire to the highest bidder. Laurence Sterne lampooned the habit in his dedication to Tristram Shandy, which read: To be let or sold for fifty guineas. At such prices, it's no surprise that even the most august stooped to it. Nor that their tributes were often toe-curling.

One such, written in 1815 by an English author whose name I wish I knew, begins "To the Right Honourable the Earl of Breadalbane. May it please your lordship, with overpowering sentiment of the most profound humility, I prostrate myself at your noble feet - With tumid emotions of heart-distending price, and with fervescent feelings of gratitude, I beg leave to acknowledge the honour I have to serve so noble a master, and the advantages which I, in common with your lordship's other menials, enjoy from the exuberance of your princely liberality."

It continues, but without an anti-emetic, I cannot. The thought occurs, though, that with only a change of names, it might almost have been written to order as a thank you for a Creative Scotland grant -

For more on dedications, and a wealth of random information about authors and books (forgeries, alcoholics, rejections, red-heads, muses, last words, etc), go to the superb anthology The Literary Life, And other Curiosities, by Robert Hendrickson. This was first published in 1981, but is still widely available second-hand in various editions. It's the sort of book that makes one forever glad of the compiler's dedication to his art.

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