I agree with Christopher Hitchens about many things and disagree with him about many things, but even when I disagree I still admire him, because like his hero, George Orwell, Hitchens is a man of great moral seriousness. He is also, probably not coincidentally, a man of great courtesy. I’ve seen this in the respect with which he treats all audience questions at his talks. And also, as I discovered when I stood in line last year to get my copy of Why Orwell Matters signed, in how he autographs copies of his books.
People often buy books in these situations as gifts, but Hitchens was the first author I’d ever seen who made sure the gift-giver got the proper credit. “And who shall I say it’s from?” he asked each person, chatting with them for a minute or two–but no longer, so as not to hold up other people waiting. My daughter had an Orwell paper due for her high-school English class that month, and I figured an autographed copy of a book about Orwell would be a good way to get her to actually start it.
It also turned out to be a lesson in perfect style. There was just something about the simple grace of the inscription: “For Maia: From Mom, and from the author,” with a line drawn through the typeset “Christopher Hitchens” on the title page and his signature underneath it.
My opinion of Hitchens has been even higher since he signed that book. And my opinion of another author, alas, has been lower, since he did the same. Although I’d co-hosted a media party for this man the night before, he not only didn’t add anything personal to his autograph, he scrawled his name in the wrong place. (It’s supposed to be on the first or second page that the title appears, not the first blank page in the book.)
Maybe it’s unfair to judge a book author by his signature, but in my experience it’s a fairly reliable character snapshot. (I’d heard that the brusque author described above had a less than endearing personality, but hadn’t really believed it till that moment. When I later read the book, I wasn’t surprised by his account of throwing a piece of cake at his wife during a dinner party.) When I’ve gotten to know them later (or knew them at least somewhat before) authors’ book-signing habits have proven brief but accurate glimpses into personality.
TV comedy writer and National Review contributor Rob Long was typically self-deprecating when he inscribed my copy of Conversations With My Agent, a comic memoir of his years in the business: “The most obnoxiously Hollywood thing I can do is send you my book,” he wrote in an advance copy messengered to my door several years ago. Ward Connerly is principled and instructive: “May you find my story to be an interesting and inspiring one. Thank you!” he wrote in Creating Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences. Virginia Postrel, a brainiac known for serious tomes about economics and technology, revealed her soft spot for lowbrow pop culture in signing my copy of The Future and its Enemies: “To a fellow Buffy fan, with all best wishes.” That was a little thrill–to be considered a fellow anything with Virginia Postrel.
If you really admire an author, it’s enormously gratifying when they acknowledge you kindly in their inscriptions, and the thoughtful ones know that. Ron Rosenbaum was generous beyond the call of duty when he signed his essay collection The Secret Parts of Fortune to me like this: “For Cathy, my kindred spirit in L.A.” Mark Steyn is another writer whose work I place in a Valhalla above that of most journalists. So when he sent me The Face of the Tiger, a collection of essays about the post-Sept. 11 world, with this P.S. on the title page, “Of all the pieces on blogging in the last year, yours was the best,” it made my day. Probably even my year.
I used to think it was uncool to ask authors I’d interviewed to sign their books for me, but I decided it was okay if they autographed them for my daughter instead. So now I have a nice collection for her.
“Read this when you grow up, BEFORE you start dating–Dave Barry, advisor,” Barry signed Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys for Maia when she was six. Mark Salzman inscribed Lost In Place: Growing Up Absurd In Suburbia this way: “I hope that this book one day makes you feel, ‘I’m not the only one? Great!’” Tammy Bruce’s advice on the title page of The New Thought Police: Inside the Left’s Assault on Free Speech and Free Minds–”Always think your own thoughts and always speak up!”–proved prescient when Maia got in trouble for writing an un-p.c. English paper a few months ago.
Bill O’Reilly was gruff and intimidating when I interviewed him, but softened when I asked him to autograph The O’Reilly Factor for my daughter. His inscription–”To Maia, through the kindness of your mother who loves you very much. Work hard & stay honest!”–was O’Reilly on topic and in a nutshell: Appreciate your parents, young lady, and behave.
I still remember when I first realized the power of a perfectly signed book. Sandra Tsing Loh and I were both columnists at the now-defunct Buzz magazine in the ’90s, when her first collection of essays, Depth Takes a Holiday, was released. Buzz threw her a book party, where an Entertainment Weekly editor I knew wandered over to me, laughing and shaking his head as he read what she’d written in his copy of the book. As it happened, EW had run a positive review of the book that week.
“She is a great gal,” he said, showing me the signed title page. I looked at the inscription: “Thanks for the nice coverage of my book in your magazine,” Sandra had written, “and again, I am SO GLAD I slept with you.”
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.