There are normally few feelings more satisfying to an author
than knowing one’s book has been spotted in a local bookstore. But there are at
least two caveats: first, that the bookstore should
not specialize in secondhand books. And second, that the book should not have
been personally inscribed to someone by the author himself.
My friend Howard, who
visits the Strand Book Store the way some people visit Starbucks, was the
spotter. He is a compulsive book-giver, famous among those who know him for his
flowery, Micawber-like inscriptions, and when buying used books, he always
checks to see whether someone else has already colonized the prime inscription
territory at the front. He saw my book on a table near the entrance to the
store, opened it up and made a shocking discovery: It had already been written
in-by me. He read how I’d offered my best wishes and admiration to the
recipient and, worse, that I had done so only a few months earlier.
He wondered: Should he tell me what he’d found? The
salesman, presumably well-accustomed to authorial neuroses, counseled not; it
would hurt my feelings, he said. A deeply religious person, Howard also knew that it was around a Jewish holiday, a time
calling for ennobling behavior, and he worried that by telling me, he would be
committing a lashon hara -in Judaism,
a kind of sin-for stirring up trouble. So he resolved to stay mum and did, at
least for a while.
All authors know the disappointments of writing books: the
long years of lonely labor, the gratuitously cruel reviews (that is, when
you’re reviewed at all), the sluggish sales, the acts of God (in my case, the
record-breaking blizzard that halted deliveries of the single most important
review), the television appearances that never happen, the interviewers who’ve
never opened the book up. Then there’s remainderhood, when one’s book lands
somewhere near the half-expired calendars and picture books on the Crimean War.
Then disappearance (or appearance on a Broadway sidewalk, alongside back issues
of People and Popular Mechanics ) and, ultimately, pulping. But discovering a
signed and inscribed copy of one’s work at a used bookstore, and in a place
where countless people were sure to see it: This was one indignity that even I
had never anticipated.
I asked Howard if the book showed any signs of use. “Only if
the man was wearing surgical gloves when he read it,” he replied. This was no
surprise, for, with rare exceptions-for instance, paperback potboilers one
finds, then leaves behind, in Laundromats and bed-and-breakfasts-people usually
keep what they read. Then, after a bit of cajoling, he told
me to whom it had been signed, and when.
It all came back to me. I had met the man in question at a
Christmas party on Riverside Drive.
He was a published author himself, surely someone familiar with fragile
writerly egos. He was older than I, said he knew and admired my work, and
seemed to take an avuncular interest in my career-counseling me about agents,
recommending me to his.
I did not offer him my book. Like many authors, as eager as
I am for people to read my work, I am quite reluctant to foist it on someone
unlikely to appreciate it. In the wrong hands, books-particularly big books-can
be burdensome things, and no author who has doted on one wants to see it
disrespected; better to leave it in the closet. But show an author the slightest
glimmer of interest, offer him the slimmest chance his words will resonate at
least one more time in one more mind, and out comes a copy. And out, too, pops
a pen. When my new friend asked for a copy, I promised him one. Hand-delivered.
Many of us living in cramped New York
apartments well know the bane of surplus books, the ones that arrive
unsolicited and form vertical piles on horizontal shelves. Always, there’s the
problem of what to do with the ones you don’t want. You can’t throw them out;
it’s a hassle to bring them to a library, which might not want them anyway. The
writers among us know of another, distinctly New York
conundrum: what to do with books written by our friends. We go to book signings
and buy them and have them inscribed, as a matter of loyalty and solidarity and
professional courtesy, even though we can’t possibly read or keep them all.
Still, when one actually asks for a book, and asks the author to sign it, one
accepts a certain code of conduct. You don’t have to read it, or even to open
it, but you at least have to keep it for a decent interval. And then, when you
do get rid of it, you do so discreetly: give it to a friend who might be
interested. Or send it out of town. Or bury it at sea. But don’t sell it,
especially right away, and especially to the best-traveled used-book store in
I don’t remember how I inscribed the book in question. It
would not have been effusive-I had only just met the man-but it would not have
been just boilerplate, either. There probably would have been a “with
admiration” or “with esteem”-due recognition to a comrade-or at least a “with thanks” for his interest in me. What I do remember
is walking up a deserted Fifth Avenue on a very cold Christmas morning, going
by the Metropolitan Museum, turning onto a street in the high East 80’s, and
dropping it off with the doorman at an elegant townhouse. Had I thought about
it, I would have felt that my book had landed in a good neighborhood, one with
lots of literate company.
Unless they’re ugly, disturbing or embarrassing, even
unwanted books enjoy a certain probation in most
homes. But here my friend had apparently packed it up with great alacrity,
hopped in a cab-folks at such chichi addresses rarely take subways-and
transported it nearly 80 blocks south. Did he stuff it into a shopping bag with
20 other inscribed books, or did he single it out for special treatment? Did
the man, despite his silk-stocking neighborhood, actually need the few bucks
the book would fetch? Or was this a hostile act, retribution for some slight or
even for advances spurned? It’s impossible to know. In any case, the book
landed at the Strand-and not on the rarefied third
floor, where the first editions and other autographed books reside, but on the
front table. I can’t blame them for that.
Howard ultimately bought
the book-it hurt him to see it sitting there, he said-and gave it back to me.
But what was I to do with it? I couldn’t give it to anyone else, but I hardly
wanted it around, either. I considered dropping it off at the man’s apartment
again, with a note: “Could you possibly have misplaced this?” Or I could cross
out the original inscription and replace it with something new: “To ___, with
hopes that, like love, this book will be better the second time around.” Or I
could call him, pretending to do some market research. How are used-book prices
these days? Do autographed copies fetch a dollar more or a dollar less than
In fact, I didn’t do anything. But this being New
York, I will surely see this man again- maybe, once
more, over eggnog. And I won’t say a word to him about my discovery-that is,
until he asks for a signed copy of my latest book.