The signed editions
There’s a really interesting post over at the blog of author Jonathan Gibbs, concerning the cult of the signed edition book. You should probably just go over there and read it rather than let me butcher the argument made, but I thought is raised some really thought-provoking points around the connection between author and reader, the compromises authors need to make, and the weird motivations we might have for getting a book signed.
I don’t have that many signed editions.
I went to my watch my local non-league football team a lot as a teenager. One year a supporter pulled together a history of the club and self-published the book. It must have taken hours and hours of research, not to mention a lot of time and money to just get the thing printed. I picked up a copy in the club bar from the author himself. Just before I left with my copy I turned back and asked if he minded signing my copy. I figured he had put that much effort in, he deserved to be acknowledged as a real author. I knew it wouldn’t make the book worth any more but it seemed like a nice gesture. He was happy to oblige. My copy may well be the only signed one. I don’t know.
I bought a history book in a local remainder/discount-type store. The author was/is pretty well-known. When I got home and pulled the book out of its plastic bag I saw the sticker on the front: Signed by the Author. And looking inside, indeed it was. This felt a little like cheating. I hadn’t queued up for the book. I hadn’t met the author. There wasn’t a personalised message. I hadn’t even bought the book from the same place he had signed it. I guess he had attended a book signing elsewhere, signed some spare copies at the end, and a few copies never sold and eventually ended up in the shop where I bought my copy. I don’t particularly treasure the book, but it being signed is a nice thing nonetheless.
And then the unsigned book that could have been signed. I’ve only ever been to one book launch, as far as I can remember. One of my professors at university was a reasonably high-profile author too, and my class were invited to the evening launch party. We all bought a copy of the book and my classmates started queuing to have their copy signed. I held back as I was enjoying the wine and canapes too much. The first signed copy emerged from the line and we all wowed at the lovely message. The next few signed copies emerged. All with exactly the same, lovely message. I decided it wasn’t worth getting my copy signed. I think I had the only unsigned copy in the building that night.
I can certainly see the appeal of a signed copy, in theory at least. It takes an object that is essentially impersonal and makes it personal. Perhaps it is a way of making the author feel appreciated too. Yet I’m always wary of meeting my heroes. What if the message doesn’t really mean much? How much of a connection can you really have over a table in a book shop with a queue behind you? Will it make you more forgiving of the author’s work, or less so? Should the author even matter?
I guess it needs to feel like a genuine gesture from the author, or even from the reader, or maybe from someone who has got it signed for you. If it doesn’t meet that criteria, perhaps it should at least be part of a good anecdote. But it shouldn’t weigh too heavily on what follows in the book itself, although perhaps it always will, the author’s scrawl echoing through the pages.
The English department at my college used to do a pretty good job of bringing in authors to do readings and book signings, so I’ve had my fair share of signed copies. Many of them are still sitting on my bookshelf, but I’ve given quite a few away, either as gifts or as little surprises to people buying online. Someone sent me a signed book when I bought used online; I tried to return the favor to people buying hardcover several years after publication. I still have my signed John Updike book, but the signed Susan Sontag hardcover would be a more meaningful piece for my artist friend than it was for me. This was something I was thinking about a couple of months ago when I was packing to move to Denver. I think books are sometimes a psychological burden–I mean that with all the love in my heart, because you carry around a book’s story and messages well after you finish it–but when you move you start to realize what a physical burden they are as well. So I culled through and donated a box to my local thrift store. I probably debated it too much in my head, but I decided to put a couple of signed books in the donation box. I almost think that the act of signing a book has got to be a relief for the author–they slaved away for years over a book, ironing out character details that even careful readers might not pick up, anguishing over whether the inclusion of every single adjective would make the book a classic or completely undermine the architecture of the story’s theme, redoing entire drafts because of one questioning glance at a workshop session, etc.–and once they’re finished and the book is on the shelves, the ritual of the book signing serves as confirmation that they survived and that they did, indeed, create something lasting. I just hope none of them end up at the Savers near Menaul and Carlisle in Albuquerque, where there’s a chance they’ll find their book on the shelves, for $2.99 (or possibly free, if the customer buys five other books of equal or greater value.)
Thanks so much for this Mike. I think your comment would make for an excellent stand-alone post, so I’m glad to have it sit here!
I can appreciate the idea of books being a “psychological burden” – I think that is the case for a lot of book I own but will probably never read again. As much as something is lost reading books through an e-reader, it is sometimes a relief to not have to find space for another physical object, and to not feel the same guilt around not keeping it.
What do you feel is lost through an e-reader? I reluctantly bought a Kindle last year and fell in love. I do feel like my reading patterns have skewed more towards fantasy and thriller, but I’m not sure if it’s because the Kindle is somehow more amenable to lighter reading, or if I’m still just seething about a string of literary contemporary fiction that wasn’t as good as their dust jackets suggested.
I probably should have qualified that statement. Something can be lost. There is something around the sheer fetishisation of the object – a nice cover, good paper stock, a nifty font. Then there is something around the act of reading a ‘proper’ book, it can be a lovely experience and can also feel like a timeless one. It is good to be away from a screen for a while. Then the practical element – it is easier to flick through a real book, or make notes, or consult the index.
Yet there is something great about the Kindle too. It is far more convenient, on a practical level. But it also feels like a ‘purer’ reading experience, as the text cannot hide behind a lovely design. I also like the freedom it gives to read what you want without worrying about people around you, and the other side of that, which is there are fewer people self-consciously reading cool books in public as a form of shorthand for how they want to project themselves. And without the storage concerns I’m far more likely to take a punt on a book via Kindle.
I am pro-e-reader. I’ve definitely read a lot more, and lot more widely, since I’ve had one.
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There’s a publishing house that’s spearheading a resurgence of dimestore hardboiled fiction. The publishing house is called Hard Case Crime, and the books have titles like “The Corpse Wore Pasties” and “Murder Is My Business.” The authors are definitely inspired by the good detective stories of the past, and they’re really committed to solid writing, and they keep the winking and nudging to a very pleasant minimum. My biggest beef with my Kindle is that the physical copies of the books have beautifully lurid painted covers, and the black and white transcription just doesn’t seem right.
I also sometimes wonder how much of a pain it would be to read David Foster Wallace on the Kindle.
When I’m in the mood for some hardboiled fiction I’ll certainly check those books out, thanks!
Oh, and yes, DFW on Kindle would be a real headache. The end-notes are awkward enough with a real book. I imagine on a tablet if you could just tap the notes it would be easy, but probably against the spirit of them being a means of breaking you away from the main narrative.