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A Happy Problem

Jul 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 41 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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I am about to publish a new book—egads, my twenty-first, which surely qualifies me as a graphomaniac—and the other day 25 so-called author’s copies arrived. The thrill of holding the artifact, the physical object that is the palpable result of one’s lucubrations, in one’s hand is still there. So is the slight nervousness entailed in opening it up, and glimpsing the thousands of sentences one has indited. Some of these sentences give genuine pleasure; others one would like to have the chance to rework, ever so slightly but crucially. But, as the old song has it, it’s too late, baby, now, it’s too late. These 25 books are called “finished copies” for a reason. 

A Happy Problem

Photo Credit: Chris Gash

Now comes the problem—a happy problem, I admit—of to whom to send these copies and how to sign them. Receiving a signed copy of a book from the author who wrote it is not an altogether unmixed blessing. The late Arnaldo Momigliano, in his day the greatest living historian of the ancient world, once said to me, as we were passing a bookstore on 57th Street in Chicago: “You know, my dear Epstein, the cheapest way to acquire a book is to buy it.” I pondered these words for a bit before I came to realize that what Arnaldo meant is that if you buy a book at least you don’t have to read the damn thing. But if you are given one as a gift, especially by the book’s author, you are under the obligation not only of reading it but having to respond, preferably in a complimentary way, by letter or by telephone. In sending these books out, then, I am putting their recipients under a heavy obligation.

I have had books sent to me by authors on subjects of the most distant interest to me, some thick enough to qualify as tomes. I generally scribble a note of thanks, adding how much I look forward to reading the book, but neglecting to add that I shall continue to look forward to reading it, well into eternity in fact, since I certainly have no intention of actually reading it while still alive. Contrary to the old maxim, there are some gift horses that need to be looked directly in the mouth. 

I am not sure why, but many people feel that there is a certain magic in a book signed by the author. I have myself signed too many books for any thought of magic in the act to linger. Other people feel that a signed copy of a book is one day going to be worth lots of money. I, on the contrary, sometimes warn people who ask for my signature on one of my books that once I sign it they can never return it to the store at which they bought it. 

People who see my signed books in the future—if these books are, hope against hope, to have a moderately lengthy future—will no doubt think that many of the signatures are forgeries. This is because my handwriting, as I grow older, is no longer consistent. I have bad handwriting days—the equivalent of bad hair days—when I am not in good control of my script. Some days my handwriting is strong and clear; other days shaky and blurred to the extent that I barely recognize it as my own. 

While flogging my books in book stores, I generally ask book buyers how they would like me to sign the copies of my books. Some responses are amusing. I once wrote a book of stories called Fabulous Small Jews, and at a bookstore a woman, who bought a copy for her husband, asked that I sign the book, “To Jim, An ordinary large Italian.” Then there is the baffling complexity of contemporary spelling. “Would you please sign the book to Judy and Edwin—that’s J‑u‑d‑e‑y‑e and O-e-d-w-e-n.”

I suppose the desire for a book signed by its author is a species of autograph collecting, a passion for which I have little understanding and less sympathy. But the passion doesn’t require my approval, so long has it been in force and so intense has it become. Not merely autographs but anything to do with the famous brings down astonishing prices at auction. Imagine what one could get for even one of Shakespeare’s socks or Virginia Woolf’s aspirin tin or Jacqueline Kennedy’s blindfold! Are we talking seven figures here, or eight?

These grumblings, the musings of an ungrateful scribbler, already have more than a whiff of being slightly out of date. I earlier mentioned the fond but less than confident hope that my books may have a long life in print. But the larger question begins to look like whether we shall have books at all. If not, please don’t ask me to sign your Kindle. 

Joseph Epstein

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