One of the sadder side effects of my having gone so completely over to ebooks in recent years has been the relative neglect of my physical library. Located in our basement, its many shelves house something over 1500 volumes—and that’s not counting my wife’s half of the collection, which is nearly as extensive. As best I can estimate, there are over three thousand books down there—books that, in my wife’s case as well as my own, no longer get much love. Oh, I use them when I need them, of course. But the once-pristine organizing of my own portion of the library is long gone, with far too many random titles stuck in random places. Too many shelves are overstuffed, with books resting awkwardly in horizontal positions on the tops of others. Once carefully-tended shelves are white with powdery dust, and if I take a book down the first thing I have to do is blow on the top of it, which raises a little billowing cloud that dissipates slowly down onto the unswept floor.
Again and again I’ve stood in our library wishing there were a way to magically convert all of those many cumbersome volumes onto my Kindle…or most of them, anyway. There are, naturally, some books on those shelves which have a special value to me—and many of those books are autographed, or, as we say in more sophisticated circles, “signed.” (I suspect book people think “autographed” just sounds too fan-girlish, though in this context the two words mean exactly the same thing.)
I own a lot of signed books. I’ve also signed a lot myself—not the books in my collection, but rather limited-edition versions of my own works. The first major experience I remember having with this was when Cemetery Dance sent me one thousand (!) signature sheets for my anthology Poe’s Lighthouse, each one of which had to be hand-signed; I’ve also had signed limiteds of He Is Legend, Midnight on Mourn Street, Lullaby for the Rain Girl, and probably some others I’m forgetting. One thing I’ve learned in signing my name so many times in succession for these projects is that after a while strange things begin to happen to my signature—it develops oddities I’ve never seen before, weird eccentricities in the formation of some letters, odd hitches and glitches that keep repeating themselves until I take a break, shake out my hand and think about something else for a while. At times I’ve looked back at a pile of finished sheets and realized that some of those scrawls hardly look like my signature at all.
On my shelves rest dozens and dozens of books signed by their authors. I find, though, that my feelings about these books have evolved over the years—partly as a result of ebooks taking over my reading habits, and partly as a result of my own feelings about certain books or, especially, certain writers having evolved across time.
The least interesting signed books are those pre-fab collector’s items of the sort I just described—books signed in large or small quantities by their authors and sold as “limited editions.” The first such I ever bought was in 1979, when the Mysterious Press offered a signed limited facsimile edition of Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat Mystery. I can still remember the thrill of looking at that signature page for the first time, the careful, highly legible “Ellery Queen” signature in quotation marks because, as I well knew, the name was the non de plume of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee. Dannay always did the Queen signature with those unique quotation marks (Lee had passed away some years before). My copy, which I still own, is marked as number 45 in a special signed edition of 250. A quick glance at abebooks.com shows me that this book is worth about $250 today. I certainly didn’t pay anything near that when I first bought it. I was in high school.
I went through a period—well, it lasted maybe twenty years, so is that really just a “period”?—of collecting such things. I have a bunch of pre-fab collector’s editions of books by Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Harlan Ellison, and many others, but I find that today I’m indifferent to them—indifferent to the editions, that is; I may well still love a given book very much, but the fact that it’s got a fancy binding and that a signature sheet is bound into it leaves me with no feeling at all except that I’m quite certain I generally paid far too much for such things.
Better are books that I got individually signed by an author, usually at official book signing events. I met William Styron a couple of times that way, and for a long time I treasured my signed first editions of Lie Down in Darkness, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Darkness Visible. The same is true of Gore Vidal, a writer I also met a couple of times, and I have six or seven of his books signed to me. But these aren’t really that different from pre-fabs; Styron’s inscriptions say “To Chris” above his signature, while Vidal’s merely say “Chris” above his (Vidal obviously learned from many years’ practice that skipping the “To” helped significantly when facing a long book-signing line). I remember these meet-the-author events fondly, but now, all these years later, the inscriptions mean as little to me as they did to the authors themselves. Technically “inscribed,” they merely indicate that I got the guy’s attention long enough to have him scribble my first name in addition to his own. Somehow this is no longer particularly thrilling to contemplate.
Occasionally, with writers no longer living, I actually purchased a signed book from a second-hand dealer. I have a nice copy of Truman Capote’s Music for Chameleons with his unmistakable miniature signature that I picked up from the Gotham Book Mart in New York; they also sold me a couple of Tennessee Williams titles with his broad scrawl within (one of them is inscribed “To Bruce,” whoever that may have been). Again, though, these items have no meaning to me anymore.
One, though, remains special: a copy of William Saroyan’s Days of Life and Death and Escape to the Moon, purchased, as I recall, from Ferndale Books in Northern California around 1987. Saroyan, once a legendary figure in American letters now mostly forgotten, was an early favorite of mine (he wrote My Name Is Aram and The Time of Your Life), and thirty years ago I couldn’t resist this lovely little volume with its unique Saroyan inscription—scrawled all over the title page it reads, “For Louise Dodgson of Fresno + the world of books everywhere—hang in there, books may catch on someday. William Saroyan October 26 1972.” Fifteen years after adding that book to my collection it occurred to me to try Googling the identity of Louise Dodgson, and I discovered that she had been a long-time Fresno bookseller. I love the book itself—it’s one of the best of Saroyan’s later works—and so this one remains a valued treasure.
Perhaps the oddest item in my collection is not a book at all (and is not kept in the basement library but rather in my file cabinet upstairs). It’s a packet of half a dozen unpublished letters written in the late ’50s and early ’60s by the great fantasist Charles Beaumont (1929-1967), author of countless brilliant short stories, numerous famous Twilight Zone episodes—and one of the most important writers in my life. These were given to me by Beaumont scholar Roger Anker as a thank you for—well, something, but I actually have no memory of what! The unique thing about these letters, all of which are typed, is that they are yellow second-sheet carbons straight from Mr. Beaumont’s typewriter. (If you’re under forty you may have to look up what I mean by a “carbon.”) They’re delightful—and they’re all signed “Chuck.” But is a carbon signature a real signature? Each one was created by Beaumont’s own direct application of pressure onto the paper-carbon paper-second-copy sandwich with his own hand; kind of a second-generation autograph, if you will. I have no idea what they might be worth, if anything—is there even any precedent for valuing carbon-copy signatures? Well, no matter. There’s no chance I would ever sell them, anyway.
But to return to my main theme here: best of all are books signed and inscribed by people I’ve actually known and been friends with. I value such items from writing compadres such as Bill Heyen, Dick Lupoff, Tony Albarella, Kurt Newton, Norman Prentiss, Lisa Morton, and lots of others. Earl Hamner, who I met at the Twilight Zone Convention in Los Angeles in 2002 and who later became a great pen-pal of mine, was a great book-inscriber. My copy of his book of Twilight Zone scripts contains this inscription: “Chris—To a real poet from an aspiring one!,” while my Spencer’s Mountain reads, “To Chris! This book was published in 1961. What took you so long to read it? Love anyway! Earl.” In my copy of Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow Earl wrote out an extended quote from Housman’s Shropshire Lad: “Into my heart an air that kills from yon far country blows, what are those blue remembered hills, what spires, what farms are those? This is the land of lost content. I see it shining plain, the happy highways where I went and cannot come again.” Now that’s an inscription.
Sometimes a writer’s inscription can be a little disappointing. My pal George Clayton Johnson inscribed his Twilight Zone Scripts and Stories to me this way: “Hi Chris! Thank you plenty! George Clayton Johnson, 2002,” which is okay, I guess, but less than I’d hoped for given all the projects we’d worked on and the time we’d spent together. At least the inscription is enlivened by several Johnsonian sketches of stars and odd figures.
But the most uncomfortable books for me to contemplate today are those warmly inscribed ones from writers who were once friends but, for whatever reason, later dropped out of my life, sometimes under slightly dramatic circumstances. What am I to do now with books whose inscriptions express deep friendship, great regard, and enormous admiration when they were written by people with whom I later suffered a falling-out? People who stopped talking to me, or whom I stopped talking to? What does one do with relics of long-dead, burned-out relationships? I shan’t name names here and there aren’t, thank goodness, too many of these books in my library, but there are a few. I look at them and try to conjure up the relationship I once had with the writer, but too often can no longer really remember—what I remember instead is how the relationship later ended, sometimes in bitter acrimony. I try to tell myself that the inscriptions are still valid—valid for that particular moment in time, anyway—but somehow it doesn’t help. Probably I’ll end up giving these books to a thrift store someday. Let some interested browsers come across such signed items and count themselves lucky to have grabbed these collectibles for a buck or two.
In the meantime, writing this has gotten me thinking again about all those old pre-Kindle volumes downstairs. Perhaps I’ll spend some time downstairs with them today.
Maybe—who knows?—I’ll even take it upon myself to dust those shelves….