Best book dedications

Alicia Fernandes/Penguin

When you first open a book, do you read the dedication? Chances are you don't – unless you're a close, personal friend of the author wondering if, this time, they're finally going to acknowledge all you've done for them and put your name in print.

If that's not the case you may, as writer Tim Dowling wrote, consider the dedication page “just some soppy, private transaction of the heart tacked on at the last minute.” But you could be wrong. Sometimes, authors go beyond the usual platitudes and turn a dedication into a work of art in its own right.

The perfect dedication (strictly not to be confused with an acknowledgement at the end) can be romantic, poetic, clever, profound, or very funny. It can set the tone for what's to come, reflect the writer's intent or even give you a flicker of backstory you'd otherwise miss.

It's a tough art to master. But here are ten examples of author's who did just that.

The stunningly beautiful

East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952)

"Dear Pat,

You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said, 'Why don’t you make something for me?'

I asked you what you wanted, and you said, 'A box.'

'What for?'

'To put things in.'

'What kind of things?'

'Whatever you have,' you said.

Well, here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts – the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.

And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.

And still the box is not full.

JOHN"

Background: This has to be one of the most gorgeously heartfelt dedications ever written, and sets a pretty accurate tone for the story that follows. The “Pat” in question was Pascal Covici, John Steinbeck's editor and best friend. When Steinbeck finished the 250,000-word manuscript, remembering a conversation the two had had, he placed it in a mahogany box he'd carved and sent it to Covici. The letter he sent with the box became the book's dedication.

The weary harrumph

Visions of Cody by Jack Kerouac (1972)

"Dedicated to America, whatever that is."

Background: With the publication of On the Road in 1963, Jack Kerouac shot to fame as America's grand master of disillusionment, alienation and restlessness – a book that defined the Beat generation and shaped America's youth culture for decades. But, according to friends, the adulation became his albatross. He died of alcohol abuse in 1969, washed out by the America he had sought to define. And Visions of Cody – a sequel of sorts – wasn't published in full until three years after his death. It's dedication summed up his feelings for his homeland.

The leveller

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie (1922)

“To all those who lead monotonous lives, in the hope that they may experience at second hand the delights and dangers of adventure.”

Background: This was only Agatha Christie's second novel, but she already knew the power of a good detective mystery. Perhaps it was also an oblique reference to her own life in the early 1920s, as a housewife prone to depression with an unfaithful husband and a small child in tow.

The humble shout-out

The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot (1922)

"For Ezra Pound: il miglior fabbro"

Background: T. S. Eliot made no secret of the influence Ezra Pound's editing had on his modernist masterpiece. He felt so indebted to his friend's meticulous tinkering – tightening it up, cutting swathes of verse and injecting much of its focus – that he felt compelled to thank him publicly. So he riffed on a famous phrase from Dante's Divine Comedy with the words, “il miglior fabbro”, meaning "the better craftsman".

“There was a great deal of superfluous matter in The Waste Land which Pound very rightly deleted," he wrote to a friend. "Indeed, the poem in the form in which it finally appeared owes more to Pound’s surgery than anyone can realise.” 

The political statement

Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin (1964)

“To the memory of Medgar Evers, and his widow and his children, and to the memory of the dead children of Birmingham”

Background: This was James Baldwin's visceral second play, inspired by the brutal lynching of Emmett Till, a Chicago teenager murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after allegedly whistling at a white woman. But this dedication had a broader and more personal significance. Medgar Evers was a prominent civil rights activist and cherished friend of Baldwin who was shot dead in his driveway by a white supremacist in 1963, as his family watched from a window.

Three months later, a KKK hit squad bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young black girls attending Sunday school. Both atrocities hit Baldwin hard, so he dedicated his angriest work to them.

The heart-warmer

The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupery (1943)

"To Leon Werth

I ask the indulgence of the children who may read this book for dedicating it to a grown-up. I have a serious reason: he is the best friend I have in the world. I have another reason: this grown-up understands everything, even books about children. I have a third reason: he lives in France where he is hungry and cold. He needs cheering up. If all these reasons are not enough, I will dedicate the book to the child from whom this grown-up grew. All grown-ups were once children—although few of them remember it. And so I correct my dedication:

To Leon Werth, When he was a little boy."

Background: Leon Werth was hungry and cold because he was hiding in Nazi-occupied France when Antoine De Saint-Exupery published The Little Prince in 1943. Werth was Saint Exupery's best friend and confidante – himself a prominent French writer, art critic and novelist.

The cryptic tongue-in-cheeker

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman (2005)

"You know how it is. You pick up a book, flip to the dedication, and find that, once again, the author has dedicated a book to someone else and not to you.

Not this time.

Because we haven’t yet met/have only a glancing acquaintance/are just crazy about each other/haven’t seen each other in much too long/are in some way related/will never meet, but will, I trust, despite that, always think fondly of each other!

This one’s for you.

With you know what, and you probably know why."

Background: No real need for an explanation here. This is Neil Gaiman having none of it, mocking the art of the earnest dedication, and opting to have a laugh instead.

The series-end curtain call

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling (2007)

"The dedication of this book is split in seven ways: to Jessica, to David, to Kenzie, to Di, to Anne, and to you, if you have stuck with Harry until the very end."

Background: This was the book that brought the most successful book series in history to an end, ten years after J. K. Rowling changed the world with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. The series has sold more than 500 million copies, been translated into 80 languages, inspired a series of blockbuster movies, launched a theme park, and turned Rowling from a single mother on benefits to being named the world's first billionaire author by Forbes. So it makes sense that she'd want to pay tribute to the legion of readers who hung upon her every word.

The grateful son

The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne (1922)

"To John Vine Milne:

My Dear Father,

Like all really nice people, you have a weakness for detective stories, and feel that there are not enough of them. So after all that you have done for me, the least that I can do for you is to write you one. Here it is: with more gratitude and affection than I can well put down here.

A.A.M."

Background: We all know about A. A. Milne's son, Christopher Robin, the child star of the author's Winnie the Pooh series. But less is known of Milne's own father, the headmaster of a small private school in London, where Milne spent his early education (one of his teachers was H. G. Wells). This was Milne's ode to the man who made him.

The meta-parody

Bertie Wooster Sees It Through by P. G. Wodehouse (1954)

DEAR PETE (Wodehouse's editor),

I have rather gone off dedications these last forty years or so. To hell with them about sums up my attitude. Today, when I write a book, it's just a book, with no trimmings.

It was not always so. Back at the turn of the century I and the rest of the boys would as soon have gone out without our spats as allowed a novel of ours to go out practically naked, as you might say. The dedication was the thing on which we spread ourselves. I once planned a book which was to consist entirely of dedications, but abandoned the idea because I could not think of a dedication for it.

We went in for variety in those days. When you opened a novel, you never knew what you were going to get.

...

Nevertheless, partly because I know I shall get a very good lunch out of you but principally because you told Jack Goodman that you thought Bertie Wooster Sees It Through was better than War and Peace I inscribe this book

TO P.S.

Half a league

Half a league

Half a league

Onward

With a hey-nonny-nonny

And a hot cha-cha"

Background: The Pete in questions was Peter Shwed, P. G. Wodehouse's editor at Simon & Schuster. The dedication runs across several pages, in which Wodehouse goes on to parody the various ways authors have dedicated their books, from the “curt take-it-or-leave-it dedication” (TO J. SMITH) to the “nasty dedication" (To The Critics, These Pearls). It is well worth a read in full. 

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