Book dedications are the Best Boy film credits of the literary world: of crucial importance to a couple of people, and largely irrelevant to anyone else. Still, there's an undeniable intrigue to the more obscure ones—who, exactly, is Frank Baum's "L.F.B.", and why does that person matter? And is that poem that opens Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland really a romantic ode to an 11-year-old girl? Once properly understood, a dedication can throw a clarifying light on authors and their relationships with the world. Knowing that Ayn Rand dedicated Atlas Shrugged to her husband and the young lover who would one day spurn her for another woman doesn't change Atlas' Objectivist nature, but it does render Rand herself a little more human.
In Once Again To Zelda: The Stories Behind Literature's Most Intriguing Dedications, schoolteacher Marlene Wagman-Geller investigates the history of 50 authors and the words they left to the most important people in their lives. She explains the "Elizabeth and David" whom Sylvia Plath honored with The Bell Jar, describes the tragedies that lend poignancy to the "To my wife" that opens Samuel Clemens' The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, and shows how, in the case of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, a dedication isn't always the most welcome gift. The subtitle of Wagman-Geller's book is a bit of a misnomer, however; the dedications she covers are less mysterious than they are an excuse for mini-biographies on some of literature's brightest stars.
It's a clever way to investigate a life, and while two-thirds of the chapters in Zelda are dedicated to authors and their lovers, the relationships are so varied—and the chapters so short—that the book should be a more engaging read than it actually is. The big problem is that as a writer, Wagman-Geller makes an excellent researcher. The information she's collected is compelling even when it isn't strictly relevant, but her prose is clunky and painfully clichéd, filled with the sort of trite puns found in particularly heavy-handed Reader's Digest articles. Zelda is nicely packaged and enthusiastic, but it could've used some polishing, and more stress on intriguing entries over well-known ones. A few less jokes and a few more actual mysteries, and the book might've justified its connections to greatness.