I’m staring at a bookcase full of books.
It’s the early 1980s, I’m 16 years old, and I’m visiting the house of my best friend from high school, who I’ll call Conor.
I’m staring because the books are all different, but they’re all by the same person. At 16, I didn’t know anyone who owned so many books by a single author. I wasn’t aware a single author had written this many books.
“Yeah,” says a voice behind me. “Those’re my Dad’s.”
To my friend Conor, I state the obvious: “I guess your Dad’s a big fan of this ‘John Updike.’”
“Oh yah,” Conor says. “Pick any book and open it.”
I do so, to see that page after page of the book, a novel, has notes in the margins, in pencil. This is another thing I’ve never seen. Isn’t this … defacing a book? Conor’s father is not a professor, a book reviewer, or a novelist: what or who are all these notes for?
And who is this John Updike? This is a question that 16-year-olds today might well ask, but unlike me in the 1980s, they can avail themselves of Wikipedia for an answer: John Updike was a mid-century American author who enjoyed both literary acclaim and commercial success. Updike was tremendously prolific, writing so many novels, short stories, and even poetry, plus literary criticism for The New Yorker, that into the 1970s and ’80s, scarcely a year went by without at least one new book from John Updike.
In the years that follow, I start reading Updike. I enjoy him. When I become a reporter in Boston, I get to interview John Updike, who by now is in his 60s. His boyish crop of hair is egret white, he is perennially in tweed, and while his literary stock is still venerable, it’s lost some of its luster. Regardless, in each of the three encounters I have with John Updike, I find him to be poised, polite, warm, and generous. You wouldn’t know he was a literary author at all.
By 1998, I have a wife; we have a baby; and my friend Conor — my wonderful, handsome, brilliant best friend — has died. He was 23. I continue to visit his father, whom I will call Sidney. I suspect that for Sidney and me, our seeing each other is a bridge over our shared loss. Whenever Sidney and I speak, a mainstay of our conversation is John Updike.
Like when I call Sidney to tell him that Updike will be giving a reading at Harvard University — not from his own writing, but from a new volume of poetry by a late friend of his, L.E. Sissman. The book’s editor is Peter Davison, poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly: he will be there reading with Updike.
Sidney asks me: “Do you think Updike will be signing books?”
“Maybe?” I say. “I’m gonna bring a few, just in case.”
“How many are you bringing?”
“Oh, two,” I say, “three at most.”
“Okay,” Sidney says.
The Johnston Gates of Harvard Yard are where I will meet Sidney and his cohort Charlie. At a distance, I catch sight of Sidney’s face: he is smiling. I recognize that smile, from my best friend Conor’s face — a toothy grin that says, “Ain’t I a devil? You’ll hate me, but you know you love me.”
I step forward to see that Sidney has, in each hand, a duffel bag sagging with tremendous bulk. His friend Charlie is also weighted down, a large canvas bag in each hand.
Oh no. No, I think, no no no.
Yes: Sidney has come with easily a hundred books, possibly more, for Updike to sign. I see, laid out before my mind, a slow-motion car wreck of an encounter between a grown man and his literary idol. I will not be witness to that, I tell myself; I can’t be.
I understand the appeal of owning a book signed by the author: you open the book and the sight of the author’s signature makes you feel as if the book were written just for you. And if Sidney’s marginal notes in his Updike collection were his way of having a conversation with the author, then the author’s signature is evidence that Updike has answered: he has written in the book too. There is his name, an imprimatur of his approval, a nihil obstat, on Sidney’s commentary, on his fandom. But to get all these books signed? It felt like paying court to King Midas, only to ask him to touch every single thing you owned.
There’s no turning back. We arrive at the auditorium for the reading, and it is small, so there are no bad seats — although where we sit is a little cramped, with these duffel bags at our feet. Updike reads; Peter Davison reads; and at the evening’s conclusion, it is announced that Mr. Updike will be available at the rear of the auditorium to sign books.
I get in line. Updike signs my books; I thank him. Turning, I see that Sidney and Charlie have positioned themselves to be the very last in line. Generous soul that Sidney is, he doesn’t want anyone to have to wait behind him while John Updike signs a library.
I maneuver to Sidney to say that I need to go home now: I need to relieve the baby sitter.
Of course, I am lying like a rug. There is no sitter. I simply cannot bear to watch. And I leave.
Later that night, at home, I get a call from Sidney, who announces with a victor’s pride: “He signed them all.”
Sidney describes the scene: While Mrs. Updike looks on with glowering impatience, John Updike sits in astonishment as one book of his after another is produced like an endless string of colored handkerchiefs from a top hat. As Sidney tells it, Updike delights in re-encountering foreign editions of his books or one-off publications that he had totally forgotten about.
The story does not end there. The following year, Updike releases yet another book of short stories, and to promote it, he will be reading at the Borders bookstore in Boston’s Downtown Crossing. The newspaper ad for the event reads: “One signed book per person. No exceptions.”
Then I turn on CBS Sunday Morning to see a segment about Updike, and the introductory montage includes a short clip of Updike signing books, saying, “I thought I signed all these,” and sure enough, shoveling even more books in front of Updike, is Sidney and his friend Charlie. Sidney tells me later that this was in New Hampshire. The books Updike signed at Harvard were not all the Updike books.
And Updike signed them all again.
Over the years, Sidney and I each have dined out on this story. Our stories are approximately the same — one variation being Sidney’s bottomless glee in relating how mortified with embarrassment I was, that I should lie to him about a nonexistent baby sitter.
It’s 2019: John Updike is dead; Peter Davison is dead; the baby I rushed home to in 1998 is no longer a baby; the wife is no longer a wife. I used to have a modest collection of first editions — I thought that owning them made me “literary” — but I’ve sold them. In loss, you either hold on tighter or learn to let things go.
(I did keep two of the books Updike signed for me that night.)
And what of Sidney’s massive library of signed Updikes? If still intact, it must be the largest collection of signed Updike books in Rhode Island, if not New England, or who knows, maybe even the US. Aren’t all those signed books worth a small fortune? Not necessarily. Collectors don’t want an author’s signature appended to an annotated volume worn by age, study, and affection. What they want is a signed first edition of a major work, a recognized classic, in mint condition — that is, they want a book that looks like it hasn’t been studied, or read, or touched.
Well — they can have it.
What’s a good book without a good story?
Tim Lemire is an author and visual artist based in Providence, RI.