Friday, February 22, 2008

Can You Deny Gratitude? What Does a Book Dedication Mean?

A friend has written a book and wanted to dedicate it to a well-known figure who had inspired his work. He sent a note and the figure's people responded that while this well-known appreciates the sentiment, the book was NOT to be dedicated to him.

This struck me as odd. A book dedication always struck me as a thank you and it seems odd to refuse a thank you.

It does make sense to refuse a present. If, for example, someone sent you a Valentine's Day gift, to accept the gift would be to send a message that you were accepting their care and that would embed you in a relationship that you might not want to be embedded in.

It would make sense to not want to be thanked in the initial footnote of an academic paper because that implies to those who read it that you've looked at an earlier draft, made comments, and think that the paper is worth publishing. To be cited in an introductory footnote is to be associated with the paper and there certainly are papers one doesn't want to be associated with.

But a book dedication seems to be different from both of these cases. It seems to be an expression of gratitude, not a gift or an association.

Maybe it's a matter of relative place. If one dedicates a book to his or her children or spouse, then no one would interpret it as influence but rather a personal act of love. If one dedicates the book to someone famous, major in a field, or dead, then it would be best interpreted as gratitude for inspiration. If, on the other hand, it is a peer who gets the book dedicated to them then perhaps one could see it as similar to the first footnote of an academic paper. Or could you?

What does the dedication of a book mean? Do you appropriate someone by dedicating a book to him?