Bookseller Paul Ingram is jumping up and down by my side as I thumb through the new Ann Patchett novel, Run, at Prairie Lights in Iowa City, Iowa. “They come pre-signed!” he squeals, pointing to the sticker on the book's shiny, turquoise cover. I feign a smile, but I can only be happy for Paul. “Pre-signed” books mean Patchett is not coming to Iowa City, the university town where she practiced her craft at the Writer's Workshop. Instead, there's her name, scrawled along a line on her new novel's page printed specifically for the purpose, to be sent to the places she is not going on her book tour. When I saw that sticker, my heart dropped.
I am a compulsive author-reading attendee, an obsessive reader and fan. People like me are the reason publishers send authors on book tours. Writers are my celebrities. I track news of them like other people follow Angelina Jolie. I sign up for e-mail alerts to keep abreast of their book tours. And when the writers I read go on tour, I am there.
My obsession with book signings is so sincere that I plan my life around it. In fact, the three moves I have made in my life—to Munich, Germany; Washington, D.C.; and Iowa City—have all occurred because my new homes all had the reputation of being places friendly to readers, with independent bookstores, robust reading cultures and, most importantly, access to the writers whose minds and work I admire.
My collection of signed books is also a living record of my reading life, a testament of my commitment to contemporary literature. The ecstasy I feel holding a signed book is so fierce, I will break the bank to buy them.
When I was living in Germany in my early 20s, I often found myself with a few euros to my name and a choice: a signed book or breakfast. I once bought a Günter Grass novel, Crabwalk, instead of paying my phone bill. Another time, I took an unpaid internship at a place that held readings to get in free to author events. Living in D.C., I overdrew my checking account to buy a first edition of Stacey D'Erasmo's A Seahorse Year at Olsson's on Dupont Circle.
Perhaps the worst part of my signed book compulsion is that I always embarrass myself when I meet the author. I try to think of something witty to say, but when it's my turn, all I can do is genuflect before the masters or just stand there stammering. Truly nothing ever comes of these meetings in the way of a personal connection—except for one flirty exchange I had with Jonathan Safran Foer at Politics and Prose in D.C.
JSF: “Wow, I really like your sweater.”
Me, in a tight green sweater: “Gee, thanks. I really love your books!”
Of course, not all writers like going on book tours, or interacting with me, the public. Most would rather be writing. As Richard Powers told me at a reading, signed books suggest a connection between the writer and the reader that just doesn't exist. (Then he handed me a signed postcard.)
Still, I didn't let Powers get me down. Instead, I continued to shell out my meager disposable income on hardbacks. And I got competitive, hoping to impress my favorite writers with the commitment of my readership. At a T.C. Boyle reading, I lined up smugly with four of his most recent novels, all hardback, of course. Turns out the fellow behind me had schlepped along a library of Boyle's books the height of a six-year-old.
Iowa City has introduced me to Michael Chabon, Junot Díaz, Zadie Smith and many other authors. Most evenings, so many writers come through town that I can hardly find time to see them all. Still, as I run my finger over the ink where Ann Patchett signed her name, I think back to the good times we've had together—the Bel Canto, all that Truth and Beauty—and am struck by two impulses. The first: to remind HarperCollins that there is little to do in the Midwest other than read. And the second: I hope this isn't a trend.
|Emily Grosvenor is a journalist, translator and former Fulbright scholar who has written for the Des Moines Register, the Washington City Paper and Poets & Writers magazine.