The one thing you discover when you publish a book is all the people who don’t read. When I used to walk a dog on Marine Drive I discovered how many men bark at dogs and it’s a similar thing. They look you in the eye and throw down a challenge. “Haven’t read a book since the day I left college,” they say proudly, expecting a medal. Then they see your face and condescend a little so as not to hurt an author’s delicate feelings. “But I will read your book, give me a copy.”
Then I have to explain, in whatever way I can, that I have no copies. (the six I received have long been distributed and I am hanging on to one by the skin of my teeth and my sister is hanging on to another and growls at anyone who comes near) I tell them that lowly authors don’t have a wealth of copies to give out and suggest a bookstore.
At that point they draw back. I see alarm and suspicion in their faces. I go ahead and tell them the name of the nearest bookstore.
“Where is it?” They ask, even if it’s just down the road.
I know what they are thinking. They are wondering if it is safe to do such a strange thing as wander into an unknown bookshop. I have seen them scurry by on the farthest side of the pavement, with furtive looks over their shoulder as they pass.
I try to make it easier. “If you call them they will deliver the book to you,” I say. Immediately I wish I had not said that
“Give me the phone number,” they demand as if I carry it in my pocket. When I admit I do not know the number I know I have lost all credibility.
First, I should have given them a book free from the enormous stack at my elbow. Second, I should not have been so crude as to expect decent people like them to step into a place like a bookstore and now, I don’t even carry the phone number handy. So I promptly put my foot further into it by suggesting they look up the phone mumber on the web. By then they are herding their children and hunting for the exit.
I once heard a conversation in a bookstore when I was browsing the shelves.
A young voice, speaking right behind the tall racks. “Hi, mom, you will never guess where I am? No, no, I am not with a boy, I am at a bookshop. What? No, a bookshop, you know where they sell books. Books. Yes, like that. Yes, of course, I am okay, I came with a friend. No, mom, I promise I have never come here before. It just happened. What? No, she just went to look for a book. Don’t worry, mom, I am really fine. I promise I won’t stay long. I will be home soon. Bye.”
Peering through the books I saw two receding figures both wearing the anonymous teenage uniform of blue jeans and tight black T‑shirt. A few minutes later they walked out, no doubt with a sigh of relief. I wonder if her anxious mother kept calling, “Have you left yet? Are you okay?”
Then there are those who, when they hear you are writing a book, look you straight in the eye and ask bluntly, “What for?” I don’t know the answer to that one. I wonder if anyone knows. I learned the hard way that it is not an existential question requiring philosophical quotes from the Bhagvad Gita. They are talking about something far more mundane.
I finally figured out that they did not mean, what for, they meant, how much, as in “How much did you pay to publish it? Does it make good money?” and unless you want them to cut you out of their lives completely never tell them how much an author earns.
And then there is always that earnest woman who leans forward and says confidentially, “I don’t read. Why don’t you just tell me what it is about? Just tell me the important parts.” When I avoid that one she says, “Well, if you lend it to me, I will look at it. As I said I don’t read.”
When I refuse she says she will get a copy of her own, in a very weary tone, obviously thinking that I will suffer terribly bad karma for this sordid breach of generosity. Then she has a better idea and delivers it by sidling close, lowering her voice and asking me to do her a favour. “You know I don’t read,” she says for the third time, “Can you mark out all the important parts?”
That is not the worst. I met the worst, a writers nightmare, on a bright sunny morning in a bookstore café. I had just ordered coffee and she came and sat by me unasked and showed me a book which was fortunately not my own.
She had made notes in the margins and underlined paragraphs, and folded corners. There was a coffee stain on the cover and the edges looked as if a rat had nibbled at them.
“I love this book,” she said, and proceeded to read me her notes. “I come here every week and sit at this table and read it and make my comments. What was the name of your book again?”
I did not tell her. Fortunately she had not waited for an answer.
We left together, walking past the long shelves. Then I found she was not beside me and turned to look. She was bending over the bottom shelf, slipping that favourite book right into the corner, behind a few others.
“There,” she said, “Its quite safe till I come back next week.” With a satisfied smile she headed for the door.