I was signing books the other day after a reading in Cleveland, and one of the people waiting in line said he wanted to pay me a big compliment. I'm always open to compliments, so I perked up my ears. I thought he might tell me that he admired what I was doing with my hair these days, but instead, he told me that he goes to lots of readings because he likes having books signed by authors, but that he doesn't actually read very much — he just likes having signed books. The compliment was that he liked the lecture enough that he was considering breaking with tradition and actually reading my book. I was flabbergasted. Why would you want signed books if you don't read? And yet — I don't think this guy is really such an exception; books are objects as well as forms of communication, and some people just like them as objects, I guess.
I'm sentimental about some old copies of books in which I've scribbled notes, and I love beautiful books, but I'm not a book-as-object person, particularly. On the other hand, I have several books that I use as rabbit's feet — good luck charms, that is — when I'm writing. I always have them on my desk when I'm working, and I constantly flip through them when I'm stuck, both as a way to distract myself from the problem at hand and to see if there's some fragment that will inspire me or provide me with a solution for the particular writing problem I've encountered. The books are Giving Good Weight by John McPhee; Great Plains by Ian Frazier; The White Album by Joan Didion; Big Sugar by Alec Wilkinson; Mr. Personality by Mark Singer. My copies are dog-eared and tattered from the many times I've pawed through them looking for insight. The bindings are busted and they are splotched with coffee stains, ink splatters, even a few lipstick marks (okay, I have, on occasion, smooched the books when I finally fixed a nasty sentence). And yet, I wouldn't dream of trading them for new, fresh copies — there is something comforting to me about the creases and stains that have accumulated over the years, almost like belt notches from each story I've eked out using the books as auspicious companions. You wouldn't trade in a lucky rabbit's foot, would you?
Books mentioned in this post
Susan Orlean is the author of My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere