Catherine Yaskira ’24
I, like most students, have been told for my whole life that I should read more. It’s good for your brain, and it helps you focus! You can learn so many words, and it makes you more creative! I’m pretty sure there are some stats I could find that support that, but to be honest, I can’t even say that’s the most transformative thing I’ve gotten from reading. Something much more near and dear to my heart are the mysteries that many books hold. For the longest time I was unaware of the secret letters hidden inside of books. They can be intimate and often romantic and spark dozens of questions that need to be answered. These are hidden in plain sight, yet most people skip over them. Or, if you do read them, you might not give them much thought. A partner, a sibling, a parent, a friend, any number of people can be the recipients of this love letter written for the world to see. These “love letters” I keep referring to are book dedications. I don’t think I’m alone ignoring them for most of my life. Whether it’s a book I’m reading for a class or for fun, I would never take the time to read book dedications. But I’ve come to realize the beauty and mystery of them. I discovered their importance by accident when I read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Flipping through the publication page and the intro to find the actual beginning of the book, I stumbled upon the dedication.
For Jack Dunphy and Harper Lee
With my love and gratitude.
The only reason why I gave this a second look was because the name Harper Lee stuck out to me. Most students in American schools have the shared experience of being forced to read her book To Kill a Mockingbird. What I don’t think most students in America know is that Harper Lee and Truman Capote were neighbors and childhood friends, and the character Dill Harris from To Kill a Mockingbird is based off of Capote. They bonded over their love of writing, Lee helped Capote cope with his mother’s abandonment and Capote helped Lee with mental health issues. Harper Lee even helped Truman Capote research for his book In Cold Blood. She would use her southern charm to get citizens of Holcomb, Kansas, to talk to her about the gruesome crime, details Capote then used to write his book. And Jack Dunphy was Capote’s long-time boyfriend who supported Capote’s work, even as it absorbed him and damaged their relationship.
Book dedications aren’t just filler pages in between the title page and the first chapter; they are a little piece of the author’s personal life- and they are something all readers should look for and appreciate. So now, I think of book dedications as a sort of mystery. When I read one, I now have to do some research. And I am never disappointed when I do. Most authors lead lives worthy of their own stories, filled with romance and tragedy. When I research book dedications, I get a little taste of what a chapter of that exciting book might be like. So here are just a couple of my favorites.
For Mercedes, of course.
The book Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez is a love story between Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza that spans half a century. (I recently read it thanks to Professor Stella Wang’s Modern Love course- she also made a wonderful presentation that introduced the impact Mercedes had on Marquez). This book is dedicated to Mercedes, “of course.” Very romantic, huh? Mercedes was Marquez’s wife until his death in 2014; she was his muse, the love of his life, and his biggest supporter. For over a year, she scrimped and saved them money while Marquez worked on his first book, One Hundred Years of Solitude. She would convince the landlord to give them more time on rent checks and pawned her hairdryer and blender to pay for postage so Marquez could send his manuscript to an editor. She was brilliant and witty, and after Marquez finally finished the book, she said to him, “Did you really finish it? We owe $12,000.”
Their love story mirrors many plot points featured in Love in the Time of Cholera. Mercedes and Marquez met when she was nine, and he was 14, and from the start, Marquez was in love- he even proposed to her shortly after they met for the first time. In his book, Florentino Ariza meets Fermina Daza at a young age and much like Marquez, falls in love with her and promptly proposes. Marquez used his gift of writing to woo Mercedes and would frequently send her letters when he was away, much like Florentino Ariza constantly wrote to Fermina Daza. But the real love letters that may have inspired those written in the book remain unread by everyone except Marquez and Mercedes; he paid her 500 pesos to get the letters back and burnt them so that their correspondence would remain private. Marquez recognized the impact Mercedes had on his writing saying, “Mercedes permeates all my books… There’s traces of her everywhere.”
The Voyage Out was Virginia Woolf’s first published book and follows the story of Rachel Vinrace as she travels to South America and falls in love with an aspiring writer. The mystery of who L.W. begins in 1904 when Virginia Woolf moved to the Bloomsbury district of London and soon became a member of the Bloomsbury group. A group of talented writers and artists alike, Virginia Woolf fit right in. It is here that she met Leonard Woolf, a fellow writer, and intellectual, and in 1912, the two married. Their marriage was not a conventional one. After he proposed to her, Virginia Woolf wrote to him, saying, “I sometimes think that if I married you, I could have everything—and then… as I told you brutally the other day, I feel no physical attraction in you.” While Virginia Woolf never explicitly defined her sexuality, she did write that she was more attracted to women than men. Leonard was accepting of this, and was not bothered that Virginia had a relationship with Vita Sackville-West during their marriage.
Together, Leonard and Virginia started the Hogarth Printing Press based out of their home. They published Virginia Woolf’s writings, works of Sigmond Freud, and translations of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Leonard was Virginia’s biggest supporter. He would be the first to read her works and would edit and praise them. From her diary, Virginia wrote, “Well, Leonard has read To the Lighthouse and says it is much my best book and it is a ‘masterpiece.’ He said this without my asking.” Virginia Woolf The Voyage Out to Leonard Woolf because of his support and understanding. There is little known about the romantic side of their relationship if there was one. But nonetheless, Leonard Woolf had a great impact on Virginia- their unconventional relationship fits with Virginia’s unconventional style. Her stream of consciousness writing and poetic lines were revolutionary, and she worked to reinvent what the written novel could be.
Long story short: book dedications deserve more press than they get. They are a window into the author’s personal life and can give deeper insight into the works themselves. It’s a mystery that’s begging to be solved, and it’s rewarding when you do. So the next time you pick up a book, look for a dedication, and you might discover an entirely different story than what you bargained for.