I've never built a chicken coop. My vegetable garden is a panoramic showroom of weeds, exotic and mundane. I am congenitally unable to sing acapella, dance the fandango, play the viola or drive a golf ball. I can't remember whether the red or the black booster cable goes on the positive or the negative battery thingy. I have to ask small children on the street to stop the beeping of my wristwatch. I can't, in short, actually do anything.
Books, mostly. Sixteen of them, I think (I can't count either). But write books I do, and certain aspects of the experience remain just as opaque as the workings of my TV browser or the female mind.
Such as signing the title page. Why do some people want me to sign copies of my book? I am going across the country (to Halifax, in faxt) next month to sit in a bookstore window and chat with book buyers while I sign their copies of my latest book (Fifty Shades of Black, Douglas and McIntyre. Better bookstores everywhere).
Why? My name is already on the cover of the book – and you can actually read it, unlike my turkey-scratch signature. What possible value does my doodle, scrawled in ball-point, add to the item in question?
It wasn't always so. Before the twentieth-century no one expected an author to actually write his signature on a copy of his book. Books then were simply inscribed 'from the author'. But I suppose someone realized that any bookstore clerk could write that phrase on an inside page and no one would be the wiser, so a bona fide author's signature became de rigueur.
Which led to a whole literary sub-industry, not to mention some nifty book-signing stories. Back in the 1970's Richard Nixon (remember him?) wrote an autobiography called Six Crises. Doing the obligatory book signing in a Washington bookstore, Nixon asked a purchaser to whom he should address the inscription. The book buyer replied “You've just met your seventh crisis. My name is Stanislaus Wojechzleschki.”
About the same time one of the great literary feuds in American history was playing out. Staunch right-winger William F. Buckley and blazing liberal Norman Mailer professed to hate one another's guts, but one suspects there was sneaking admiration on at least one side of the firefight. Buckley certainly thought so. He sent a copy of his autobiography to Norman Mailer, but puckishly declined to sign it. Flummoxed, the notoriously egotistical Mailer thumbed through the index at the back of the book to see if he'd been mentioned in the text. Right beside MAILER, NORMAN he found a note in Buckley's handwriting. It read “Hi, Norman.”
Signing one's books can be an exercise in ego deflation. The musical composer Aaron Copland was at the checkout counter in a bookstore one day when he noticed a woman buying a copy of his book, What to Listen for in Music, along with a paperback edition of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. He sidled up to the woman and asked “Would you like me to autograph your book?”
“That would be lovely,” the woman beamed. “Which one?”