Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

DEFACING BOOKS: QUESTIONING THE VALUE OF THE AUTOGRAPHED BOOK

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I recently spent an afternoon trundling around Toronto with transit pass and pen visiting bookshops to sign copies of my novel Snakes & Ladders. It was my first time on such an outing and the experience led me to wonder, what is the value of a signed book? While I was in one store, a man stopped and peeked over my shoulder at the title page I was signing. By the smile on his face it was obvious he was very pleased to be witness to my actions. “Is that the author?” he’d asked the store manager moments before. In his eyes I was a what, not a who.

When I first worked in bookstores, I found myself enthralled by the fact that I was surrounded by the thoughts of some of the world’s greatest minds. A book, if nothing else, is an interior view of its author and as such is a remarkable thing, because typically the author is nowhere to be found. The book is his proxy, except it is more than that because it delivers what you couldn’t actually get—or not very easily—if the author himself were in fact present: his precise, organized thoughts. A book is those thoughts disembodied. So why do we want the body?

Years ago I watched the author Neal Stephenson autograph 200 copies of his novel Cryptonomicon in the back office of a bookshop. He was doing an event that night in a large auditorium and the books would be for sale. Stephenson is a notoriously shy person. He had no desire to meet his readers. In fact, he so objected to the idea that he refused to do a signing at the event. There was, however, to be a contest in which five audience members would get to come backstage and shake his hand and have their books personalized. I was back there as well and witnessed that Stephenson could not have been more distant to the five winners. Perfunctorily pleasant, but unmistakably distant. They, in turn, were thrilled, ecstatic even, despite the fact that Stephenson had given them next to nothing. It was a profoundly imbalanced equation.

The president of a huge multinational publisher once told me that the key to book marketing—what people really want—is contact with the author. Contrary to popular belief, a signed book by a famous author has more monetary value on the antiquarian market if it is dedicated and inscribed, not just autographed. It means the author spent more time with that book. This is the cult of celebrity in action. Who wouldn’t love to have dinner with their favourite movie star, musician, or yes, author? And in that author’s absence, who wouldn’t love to own a copy of a book the author had held in his hands, lingered over and thoughtfully inscribed?

But what does such contact do? Why do we want this? Why do we want to meet such people? Why do we want those books when such people aren’t available? I believe it has to do with our emotional response to art. When art moves us we integrate it into our intimate lives. We “own” it and invest it with personal meaning that it does not inherently have. We feel as though it is part of us and that it reflects our lives even though it almost never, ever has anything whatsoever to do directly with us. Along with such feelings often comes a delusional sense of connection to the artist. John Lennon once infamously deflated a fan who was thrilled to meet him. The fan was spouting about how Lennon’s songs spoke to him, how they meant so much to him, how he identified so deeply with them. Lennon told him flatly that the songs, in fact, had nothing at all to do with him. How could they? The man was a complete stranger. Any emotional value he’d assigned to Lennon’s songs had been grafted onto them by himself. It was pure fantasy of him to think the songs spoke directly to him in any way.

The truth is, we only think we want the body. Society likes to romanticize artists, turning them into objects of adoration out of mass delusion about our “connection” to them. Spending time with a “celebrity” is like spending time with someone who has a horrible disfigurement. At first we gawk, unable to think about anything else, but soon enough we forget about what was at first so unusual and start to see the real person (good or bad). Superficial contact with a celebrity—getting an autograph or handshake, taking a photograph, purchasing a unique memento—is a way of intensifying the delusion of connection without bursting the bubble of mystique inside which the delusion encloses such people. I admire the work of the author Bret Easton Ellis tremendously yet once, when I had the opportunity to meet him—he was standing alone, not ten feet away, smoking a cigarette outside a building where he’d just given a reading—I turned and walked away. This was not because I was shy, but because as a reader I didn’t want the mystique I’d created about Ellis the writer and narrator to be dispersed. I have no illusions about who and what Ellis is. His toilet, no doubt, fouls the air just as everyone else’s does. But I have a lot of trouble reading fiction by people I’ve met and it is just so much more enjoyable to read that disembodied voice without having to bother about the actual person. Like a child in grade school who doesn’t realize his teacher exists outside the classroom, I don’t want my authors to exist outside their books, or rather, outside my experience of their books.

That is why, as I was signing my novel in those stores, a part of me felt like I was simply defacing perfectly good books. In school, I remember, if you wrote in a library book, they—teachers, librarians, vice principals—would hunt you down like a bear that had tasted human flesh. Writing in books was a horrible, awful thing to do. But there I was doing what no other person on the planet could do: writing in those books that weren’t even mine. And why? A week later, a friend came to dinner and produced a digital camera that contained an image of a display table at a large downtown bookstore, the very store where that man had peeked over my shoulder. On the table, along with 19 other books, was Snakes & Ladders, its cover now adorned with big blue “signed by author” stickers. Above the table hung a sign reading “20 books to read before you turn 20”. How strange, I thought, how flattering. It was clearly a mistake. If they only knew me, they would chuckle and quickly take the books away.

I don’t know what I represented to that man peeking over my shoulder, but to me he represented the first moment in which I felt my book existed outside the concentric bubbles of my personal world and the book industry in which it had been created. That is where it belongs and I am happy it is out there. Let the world do with it as it pleases. I can’t imagine that anyone would perceive value in my defacement of their book—in my signature, that is—but if they do, so be it. That’s their business. That’s their delusion. I haven’t yet met any strangers who’ve actually read my book, but apparently (hopefully!) people are buying it. If it turns out they want to meet me, I’d very much like to meet them as well, though I will understand perfectly if they prefer to head in the other direction. In fact, to me that would be the greatest compliment.

3 comments

Interesting post about Neal Stephenson from an outside (non uber fan) perspective... there is always the risk of utter disappointment when meeting an artist you idolize.

I try to pick up signed copies of my favorite authors whenever I run across them at Chapters. Every once in a while you find some leftovers from a signing with your name on it !!

What an interesting post! Personally, I love having signed copies of books - it just personalizes the book on a different level. The author wrote the book, and physically touched the book, and now it's mine... it gives it more worth to me, although I don't know why. Although I love having signed copies, I don't want to meet the author and have it signed in front of me - like you I don't want to have the mystery of the author revealed to me. It would probably be disappointing to find out that your favourite author is merely human with flaws just like you and me.

I do have a problem seeing people (not the author) write in books. I belong to a book club and when the girls break out their highliters I die a little inside.

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Shaun Smith

Shaun Smith is a novelist and journalist living in Toronto. His young adult novel Snakes & Ladders was published in January 2009 by the Dundurn Group.

Go to Shaun Smith ’s Author Page