When a used book has an inscription, it's like a visit from a ghost of Christmas past

Clifton Fadiman said it best when he wrote of 'objects whose connection with us lies just this side of evanescence.'

Danny Heitman
'Any Number Can Play' is a delightful 1957 collection of essays from Clifton Fadiman.

One of the small complications of being a book lover is that I sometimes end up with Christmas presents meant for someone else. I buy quite a few used books, and as I’ve discovered over the years in reading the inscriptions inside, some of them began their lives as holiday gifts.

I have on my desk right now a first-edition copy of “Any Number Can Play,” a delightful 1957 collection of essays from Clifton Fadiman. Fadiman was a big deal back then; his roles as a radio and TV personality, book critic, and general man of letters had endeared him to thousands as a great explainer of high culture to the broad middle class. He’s all but forgotten now, although “The Wine Lover’s Daughter,” a charming new memoir by Anne Fadiman, has helped renew her father’s profile.

In 1957, Clifton Fadiman would have been a hot commodity, his latest book a prized present to tuck under the holiday tree. My copy was once presented by “The George Cornelsmans” – that’s the way married couples often identified themselves back then – to Annette Dickens as a gift on “Xmas 1957.” Or so I see by the dedication, inscribed in blue ink, across the flyleaf.

It’s odd to own someone’s else’s Christmas present, but Fadiman himself, who died in 1999 at age 95, was familiar with the phenomenon. In “Enter Conversing,” his 1962 collection of essays, Fadiman offers a few words on Leigh Hunt, a now-obscure English critic and essayist that Fadiman enjoyed through an old edition inscribed “C.M. Baker, Dec. 25, 1892.”

Combing through the book made Fadiman wistful. “To it there clings the odd pathos attaching to objects that are period pieces but not yet quite museum pieces, objects whose connection with us lies just this side of evanescence,” Fadiman wrote of his vintage volume. “They touch us as a dying odor in a room we vaguely remember faintly challenges the nostrils of memory.”

Christmas itself, so fleeting in its charms, can touch us with a deep awareness of what’s transitory. It’s something I feel with special sharpness when I open my old books and, in the glad tidings occasionally written inside by long-ago strangers, get a visit from ghosts of Christmases past.

That makes me all the more glad to hold my books to heart – and take comfort in what endures.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”   

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