The Art of the Dedication

And Now, A Few Words for one Person—More or Less

If you’re reading this—a post in a blog about writing, penned by a novelist—chances are that you’re familiar with book dedications. Many of us are. Maybe you’ve happened upon them in novels, or maybe in volumes on world history. Perhaps you’ve spotted them in collections of short stories or in cookbooks, in travel guides or in oversized coffee-table tomes. So many books have dedications, it’s likely that you’ve run across them numerous times, in all sorts of editions. I know I have.

But have you ever stopped to think about dedications? Do you actually read them, or do you simply skip to the first page of the body of the book? All my reading life, I’ve looked at dedications and wondered about them. In my experience, I’ve often seen them expressed in the most concise manner, such as:

For Beth

Who is Beth, and what is her—if Beth is indeed female—relationship to the author? Why did the writer feel motivated to dedicate their book to that individual? It’s like a small mystery hidden in plain sight inside the front matter of many volumes.

Admittedly, it’s not necessarily a profound mystery. Writers dedicate their works to significant others, to family members, to friends, to colleagues. The reasons are equally obvious: for love, for gratitude, for friendship, for bonhomie.

Nor are dedications unsolvable mysteries. In theory, a reader could research the life of a writer and figure out the identity of the dedicatee (yes, that’s a real word) and the relationship between the two. Authors also write about their lives and their works, and they grant interviews, sometimes revealing such details.

Some dedications aren’t even mysteries at all. Consider one of a more expansive nature:

For Beth,
My wife,
Because I love you

Not much to wonder about there. Still, I had other questions, not about the content of dedications, but about the overall practice. Why do writers write them? Why are dedications so commonplace? When and where did the practice originate?

The novel is a fairly modern human invention. Scholars frequently cite the art form’s inaugural appearance to 1605, to the publication by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra of the first volume of Don Quixote. (The novel’s full title, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha, translates into English as The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant Don-Quixote of the Mancha. I highly recommend Edith Grossman’s brilliant translation.) Señor Cervantes did not initially include a dedication in his book, but an edition published eight years after its first appearance contained the following prefatory passage, which has been translated from Spanish by John Ormsby:

TO THE DUKE OF BEJAR, MARQUIS OF GIBRALEON, COUNT OF BENALCAZAR AND BANARES, VICECOUNT OF THE PUEBLA DE ALCOCER, MASTER OF THE TOWNS OF CAPILLA, CURIEL AND BURGUILLOS

In belief of the good reception and honours that Your Excellency bestows on all sort of books, as prince so inclined to favor good arts, chiefly those who by their nobleness do not submit to the service and bribery of the vulgar, I have determined bringing to light The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, in shelter of Your Excellency’s glamorous name, to whom, with the obeisance I owe to such grandeur, I pray to receive it agreeably under his protection, so that in this shadow, though deprived of that precious ornament of elegance and erudition that clothe the works composed in the houses of those who know, it dares appear with assurance in the judgment of some who, trespassing the bounds of their own ignorance, use to condemn with more rigour and less justice the writings of others. It is my earnest hope that Your Excellency’s good counsel in regard to my honourable purpose, will not disdain the littleness of so humble a service.

Clearly, Sr. Cervantes left no questions either about the identity of the man to whom he dedicated the book, or about his reasons for doing so. Could this have been the first occurrence of a dedication? As it turns out, no—and not by a long shot. Although the modern novel dates back only four centuries, books—in the sense of bound editions with separate leaves—reach back nearly two millennia. Prior to that technological innovation, people wrote on tablets and scrolls, which, though different in form, could also be considered books. According to Mary Elizabeth Brown in the introduction to her 1913 compilation, Dedications: An Anthology of the Forms Used From the Earliest Days of Book-Making to the Present Time,

“Dedications have been written since books were made, and the custom is confined to no one nation, race or tongue.”

So the practice is not unusual. In fact, it’s traditional. In 400 BCE, the Athenian statesman and general Aristides wrote,

“Temples are to be dedicated to the gods, and books to good men.”

When I try to recall how I came to compose my premier dedication, I don’t precisely remember the moment. I do know that when I finished the first draft of my inaugural novel, The 34th Rule, and turned it in to my editor, I did not include any of the various addenda that are often found in a book—dedication, acknowledgments, author bio. I submitted those items later, at some point during the editorial process (sans author bio, which my editor never requested of me; I guess, with me having just one novel to my name, he didn’t think any readers would want to know anything about such a neophyte).

During all those occasions when I’d read and speculated about other author’s dedications, I had never stopped to consider who might be the objects of my own, even though I had no doubt that I would someday see my novels published. But when I sat down to write my first dedication, I didn’t even need to think about which name to type: Karen. Ms. Ragan and I had met several years earlier, had fallen deeply in love, and married. As I said in the vows I wrote for my part of our wedding ceremony, before meeting Karen, I could not have imagined spending my life with the woman of my dreams; afterward, I could not imagine living without her. And so I crafted my first dedication:

To my darling wife, Karen,
my earthbound star,
in whose orbit
I shall forever dance.

I do remember that the words came quickly and easily. The dedication indicated my wife’s importance in my life and my love for her, it tied in to the novel’s genre with my use of the word star, and it alluded to one of Karen’s great passions, dancing. I liked it. More important, when The 34th Rule finally came out and my wife read it, she liked it too.

Since then, I have written seventeen more novels and, to this point, sixteen more dedications. Though I have turned in the first draft of my next book, Original Sin, I did not include any addenda with it. Time remains for me to do that as the novel travels through the editorial process before it reaches publication in December 2017. I haven’t yet decided to whom I am going to dedicate Original Sin, but I have narrowed it down to two of my closest friends. I’m looking forward to making the choice, and to writing something meaningful for someone I love. I find it a privilege to have the opportunity to publicly recognize the people who are important to me, in a way that most individuals never get to experience, either as dedicator (yes, also a word) or dedicatee.

So far, in the seventeen dedications I have in print, I’ve recognized seventeen different people (including Karen in three separate books). I’ve dedicated two novels to pairs of people—my maternal and paternal grandfathers in one, and my wife’s parents in another. I’ve memorialized three people who had already died, but who I nevertheless wanted to commemorate. I’ve mentioned two individuals who started out as my editors and ended up as my friends. I’ve dedicated books to my mother, to my sister, and to two of my sisters-in-law, as well to many great and wonderful friends.

Are my dedications any good? I hope so, but appreciation is in the mind of the reader. What do I think makes for a good dedication? I’d say that depends on the ambition and execution of the writer, as well as the reception of the intended audience. For many dedications, the words of devotion are meant for a single individual, but that’s not always the case. Some are intended for a larger audience, up to and including the entire readership of the book. I believe this is especially true of humorous dedications. Consider the words at the beginning of Frankie Boyle’s comedic memoir, My Shit Life So Far:

To all my enemies,
I will destroy you.

Perhaps Mr. Boyle genuinely wanted to address the people he considers his enemies, but my guess is that he sought to employ even his dedication as a source of humor to make his readers laugh. The great American poet E. E. Cummings, on the other hand, clearly did intend to send a message to the group of people to whom he dedicated his 1935 collection. After having 70 Poems rejected by fourteen publishers, Mr. Cummings borrowed money to have it printed himself, under a new title, No Thanks. In the book’s dedication, intentionally sculpted to resemble a funeral urn, he then named all of the companies that had turned him down:

Another vengeful dedication appeared in blogger Jenny Lawson’s memoir, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened:

 

I want to thank everyone who helped me to create this book,
except for that guy who yelled at me in Kmart when I was eight
because he thought I was being “too rowdy.”

You’re an asshole, sir.

 

 

Comedian Chelsea Handler fronted her collection of humorous essays, Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang, with a broadside to her siblings:

 


To my brothers and sisters.
What . . . a bunch of assholes.

 

 

 

Mathematician Joseph J. Rotman took his wife and children to task in his dedication to, of all things, a textbook, An Introduction To Algebraic Topology:

 

To my wife Marganit
and my children Ella Rose and Daniel Adam
without whom this book would have
been completed two years earlier

 

 

In her novel Austenland, Shannon Hale reached out to a famous actor:

 

For Colin Firth

You’re a really great guy, but I’m married,
so I think we should just be friends.

 

 

Kiera Cass dedicated her debut young-adult novel, The Selection, to her father in something of a motive way:

 


Hi, Dad!
*waves*

 

 

 

In his YA novel, Ruins, Dan Wells offered the following disappointment to readers:

 


This book is dedicated to everybody you hate.
Sorry. Life’s like that sometimes.

 

 

 

Tobias Wolff inscribed his memoir, This Boy’s Life, like this:

 


My first stepfather used to say that
what I didn’t know would fill a book.
Well, here it is.

 

 

Matthew Klein dedicated his novel, No Way Back, to his mother, with an admonition:

 


For Mom

(Just skip over the sex scenes, please)

 

 

For me, one of the most glorious aspects of a dedication, from a writer’s perspective, is that there are no rules. Not really. I’m sure that I could choose incredibly inflammatory words that might cause an editor or a publisher to raise an eyebrow, but even then, I’m not sure what it would take for one of those people to demand a modification. The dedication is essentially a piece of real estate inside a book that belongs to the author. In practice, we’re the only ones permitted to plant our flags there. That standard can carry a message for one person or for many. It can be obvious or enigmatic. It can be funny or poignant, sweet or acerbic, inspirational or romantic.

In his collection of essays on the dangers of modern life, Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody, Robert Brockway both praised his wife and then comically threw her under the bus:

 

This book is dedicated to Meagan, who has had the
kindness and decency to not realize she’s way out of
my league for many years now. It should also be noted
that this entire book was her idea. Please direct
complaints accordingly.

 

The astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan wrote a book, Cosmos, to accompany his television series of the same name, and he dedicated it to his wife:


For Ann Druyan

In the vastness of space and the immensity of time,
it is my joy to share
a planet and an epoch with Annie.

 

In her treatise on the creative process, The Novel of the Future, Anaïs Nin reached out to a nation in a way that resonates half a century later:

novel-of-the-future.jpg

 


This book is dedicated to sensitive Americans.
May they create a sensitive America.

 

 

Perhaps because my novels aren’t comedies, and perhaps because my tastes run more toward the dramatic, my own dedications tend to the heartfelt. In addition to dedicating The 34th Rule to my wonderful wife, I also devoted two other books to her. In The Star to Every Wandering, a title I lifted from a passage in William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, I echoed some of the phrasing of that poem in my dedication, combining it with the title of the Star Trek episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” that formed the foundation of the novel:

To dear, sweet Karen,
My bright, constant star,
The light in my life,
The beat of my heart.

Love lies not beyond unapproachable frontiers,
Or else I did not write, and have loved never.
Love alters not with time’s hours and days and years,
But bears out even to the edge of forever.

And in Revelation and Dust, my dedication read:

To Karen Ragan-George,
the light of my life, the beat of my heart,
gracing my eyes with her timeless beauty,
my ears with the lyric of her laughter,
my spirit with her artistic essence,
and my mind with her depth of intellect.
I love you, my sweet, for now and ever.

I dedicated my second novel, Twilight, to my mother, hewing to a theme that had me looking up into the firmament:

To Patricia Ann Walenista,
one of the brightest stars in my sky,
whose glow bestows warmth,
whose light provides guidance,
and whose every rise brings love and support

I wrote to my sister in my third novel, Serpents Among the Ruins, still peering skyward:

To Jennifer Lynn George,
who blazes through my life like a shooting star,
constantly dazzling me,
shining with her wit,
illuminating with her intellect,
and brightening with her love, kindness, and support

I memorialized my two grandfathers in my fourth novel, Olympus Descending. Both had already died, but I still felt the need to say something about them, and about their influences on my life. In some measure, I was also writing to my father and mother.

To
David R. George
and
John M. Walenista

Two men, both larger than life,
who taught me in ways they knew
and in ways they didn’t,
and who brought me joys
that will remain with me always

I also dedicated my fifteenth novel, Sacraments of Fire, to somebody I’d lost. He introduced himself to me when he saw me having a catch with a friend, asking us a question with a rather obvious answer: “You guys like baseball?” He and I ended up growing close on the diamond, playing many games as teammates and a few as opponents, but we became even closer off the field. He died unexpectedly, far too young and far too happy for his loss to make any sense at all.

To Paul E. Roman,
a man who lived a quiet life of greatness,
an unparalleled friend and batterymate,
with whom I shared
many priceless and unforgettable moments.
I miss you.

In my fifth and tenth novels—Provenance of Shadows and Plagues of Night, respectively—I singled out two of my sisters-in-law, both of whom I love like sisters.

To Anita Carr Smith,
a shining light in my life,
whose remarkable spirit
and boundless heart
always lift up those around her

To Colleen Genevieve Ragan,
Friend, sister, native, spirit,
A woman who brings love and laughter with her,
Forever the benevolent queen of all she surveys

I dedicated my sixth novel, The Fire and the Rose, to my wife’s parents. From the day I met them, they treated me like one of their own.

To Audrey and Walter Ragan
—Audrey Ann and the Navy Man—
two of my favorite people,
who welcomed me into their family
with extraordinary love and support

Back in college, I made a friend my freshman year not long after I moved into the dormitory. We bonded over science and science fiction in general, and over Star Trek in particular. We spent so many days and nights discussing the meaning of life, arguing about the existence of God, and delving into questions of universal existence and human morality, but we also played softball, shot pool, competed in video games, hiked through the winter nights up along the frozen river, and sat around a table attempting to bounce a quarter into a shot glass filled with beer. Back in those halcyon days, he also read my work, believed in my artistic abilities, and supported and encouraged me in my writing endeavors. I remembered all of that and more when I dedicated my eighth novel, The Embrace of Cold Architects, to him.

To Steven H. Pilchik,
The first stranger I met in a strange land,
Who turned out to be a fine man and a lifelong friend,
One of the few who always understood and who always believed,
And whose presence in my life has enriched it greatly.

I dedicated my fourteenth and sixteenth novels—One Constant Star and Ascendance, respectively—to another pair of college friends. Years later, I still count them as two of the most important people in my life.

To Dana Joseph Robitaille,
the original Dude,
a kind and generous friend
with a raucous sense of humor,
a man of high ideals and bright mind,
a kindred spirit with whom I have shared
many an adventure,
and a true brother to me
 

To Michael David Sperber—
An automotive genius,
A trophy-winning competitive car racer,
And a man who could sell tribbles to a Klingon,
He is a true character and a great friend.
Here’s to Murray!

Murray, by the way, is Michael’s beloved 1964 Ford Galaxie 500.

For my ninth novel, Rough Beasts of Empire, I recognized somebody I had befriended more recently, a man I’d met when he offered me a contract to write my second novel. In working with him on half a dozen of my books, along with short stories and various other pieces, I discovered that, wielded by the right person, editing is not just a skill, but an art.

To Marco Palmieri,
Who came into my life as an editor,
Plying his craft with artistry and optimism,
But who turned out to be something even more important:
A good man and a good friend

I also dedicated my eleventh novel, Raise the Dawn, to an editor, a woman I would work with on almost a dozen novels.

To Margaret Clark,
An editor whose professional talents and creativity

Only ever helped to improve my work,
And a person whose intelligence, kindness, humor, and friendship
Continue to enrich my life

For my twelfth and seventeenth novels—Allegiance in Exile and The Long Mirage, respectively—I turned back to the baseball diamond, to two men I met while competing in a tournament. The three of us have since played many games together, with and against each other, in all sorts of different places, from San Francisco to Los Angeles to San Diego, from Bakersfield to Lodi to Las Vegas, from a lava-enriched infield on Hawai‘i to the hallowed ground of Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, New York. Both men stood with me at my wedding, two of my four Best Men (Paul Roman was a third).

To Richie Hertz,
#33 in your scorecards and first in your hearts,
a bright mind with high ideals,
a big thinker who sees the big picture,
and a man I am honored to call my friend

 

 

I dedicate this book to a great friend;
he stood beside me
as a best man at my wedding,
he bats third,
he plays shortstop,
and his name is
Mark Gemello.
(There’s always room for Gemello!)

Obviously, I favor making my dedications more than simple statements. That’s not at all to say that there’s anything wrong with a concise declaration like

To Beth

Written by one person and read by another, such a dedication could carry a tremendous amount of meaning. But I prefer to write more. I enjoy including details that only the person to whom I’m dedicating a book will fully understand—personal details relating to our relationship, experiences, and in-jokes. That doesn’t make my dedications any better or worse than those of any other writer. In truth, regardless of length, regardless of form, regardless of tone, regardless of the intended audience, dedications actually unite authors, joining them in the shared purpose of sending out a personal message separate from the book that follows.

In “Elizabethan Dedications of Books,” an article that appeared in Harper’s Monthly Magazine, Volume CV, No. DCXXVI, in July 1902, the English poet Edmund Gosse declared,

“There can be no doubt that to compose a dedication is one of the primitive instincts of scribbling man.”

In this context, I choose to understand the word man in its inclusive sense of an individual human. Gosse went on to contend that,

“The most retiring of authors hopes that he may have one reader, and it is strange if he does not determine in his own mind who that reader is to be. If the exiled Adam completed his memoirs—‘Eden: A Reminiscence’—depend upon it that he dedicated them ‘To One who shared my raptures and my regrets.’ Without the anticipation of Eve’s sympathy, literature would have been to our first father a wilderness of monkeys.”

A wilderness of monkeys. What a turn of phrase. A wilderness of monkeys.

It gives me an idea for my next dedication.

 

©2017 David R. George III

A note on typography: I have sought to reproduce the dedications recounted in this article as accurately as possible, including the justification and kinds of type. The choices of left or center justification, and of roman or italic type, are therefore not arbitrary, but reflect the appearance of the dedications in their native books.