Monday, April 03, 2006

For the Sake of the Collection

So there I sat, the only man in a rapidly filling room of book lovers. We’re there at the Tattered Cover to hear Jodi Picoult read from her latest novel, The Tenth Circle. I had been there for about ten minutes. At the time, only a few others were scattered around the sitting area. Now, there were close to 100 women talking and laughing, each of them with a copy of Picoult’s new book.

I finally spotted another man—he was wearing a bright orange Broncos hat and a plaid shirt. If I didn’t know better, he was ready to go hunting with his buddies. Instead, he was at a book signing with his wife.

Before I even had a chance to feel uncomfortable in my surroundings, a group of three women take the seats in front of me. They were debating the proper times to wear makeup and when you can get away without. As the crowd thickened, the trio’s conversation bounced between daycare, high school, and clothes. I let my ears focus on a few other conversations around me, and that’s when I finally began to feel a little out of place. I can handle being the only guy at a book signing, but being at one in which there’s no talk about books, now that’s a bit disconcerting.

About five minutes before the event was supposed to start, the place was standing room only. I’m surrounded by women, old and young (but mostly older). I look around and spot two other men. They look unhappy. Mad even. The looks on their faces brought to mind those beer commercials with the men tagging along while their wives shop for clothing.

Not me. I’m happy to be there. But why?

Three words: signed first edition.

Jodi Picoult doesn’t write the type of story I’d usually be interested in. She tends to lean toward family drama. You know, with lots of emotional yanks. But when someone from work told me that one of the main characters in The Tenth Circle is a graphic novelist, I thought I’d give it a shot. And when I discovered that there’s actually some sequential art in the novel that ties into the story, I was sold.

Knowing Picoult would be in town for a book tour had the collector in me…not exactly salivating, but interested enough to spend 10 minutes the day before looking for the best copy with the tightest spine and the least amount of rubbing on the dust jacket. I felt like an idiot going over every single copy, but I did it anyway. The fact they’d printed a million copies didn’t phase me one bit.

Yep, the collector in me prevailed and I found the best copy (it actually took two stores to do so). Of course, the collector in me wanted to take it to the next level and get the book signed. And that’s how I found myself at the Tattered Cover on a Monday night surrounded by 150 women (and no more than seven men).

Once I got there and the place filled up, however, my inner collector vanished. He abandoned me to my fate. So I began wondering just what the hell I was doing there. Without him to keep me excited for what was to come, I considered walking out. Sure, the writer in me would enjoy hearing a published author speak, but come on. Jodi Picoult? Would a signed first edition of such a mass-produced author who apparently caters to middle-aged women really be that important?

Of course it would. Fate had taken me there, so I waited it out. And lucky for me, too, because I had a good time. Picoult was an excellent speaker, and while I wouldn’t say I learned anything breathtaking, I did enjoy her reading and hearing about her day-to-day experiences with the written word.

Amid the chaos after the reading as everyone jostled for a position in line, a slightly frumpled and moderately attractive woman of about 30 stood before me. I immediately knew she was asking herself why I was there. Then she verbalized her thoughts.

“Excuse me. Do you mind if I ask how you got interested in her work?” she asked, nodding to my copy of The Tenth Circle (a happily BroDarted copy, I might add).

I hesitated. Thousands of answers bounced through my head in an instant, but none of them really rang true. Which was I to choose? Was I there because I’m a comic collector and this book had graphic art in it, or because I’m a book collector and a signed copy is always a little more sought after?

When I didn’t answer immediately, she must’ve thought I was embarrassed or uncertain. “I don’t mean to pry, but, well--” she said, glancing around the audience.

“Not a lot of guys here, are there?” It was more of a statement. She smiled and nodded in understanding. “I’ve actually never read her. A friend from work mentioned she was a good writer. Plus, I read graphic novels and I heard one of the characters is an artist.” (Notice that I used the much more mature phrase “graphic novels” instead of the more childish “comic books.” I may be a 33-year-old married man with plenty of confidence, but I still had to edit my speech when it comes to talking comics with female, even if she was a little frumpish.)

“Ah,” she said, her mind obviously processing the information. Maybe she was scanning for sarcasm? Maybe giving me a geek rating? Who knows? But I apparently passed whatever test she might’ve given (she must’ve factored in my rugged good looks and boyish charm) because we ended up talking books for about 30 minutes as the line steadily moved forward.

I must admit I enjoyed her company and regret that it was so brief. It was refreshing to share thoughts about books with a total stranger. I have so few people in my life with whom I can discuss literary works, so it was a joy to talk about our likes and dislikes, even if we didn’t share the same tastes. Perhaps it was even more meaningful because of the lack of such conversations taking place around me earlier when I sat waiting for the evening to begin.

Aside from two co-workers, a couple of friends, and my lovely and intelligent wife, I rarely get the joy of discussing the one hobby that truly means so much to me: reading. So often you hear people talk about a TV show as if the characters were their friends, but rarely do you hear the same admiration given to a character in a book. A few of my friends would join me in a conversation on books and have the same enthusiasm I had, and here was another.

As I got closer to Picoult and her pen that would give my copy that personal touch, I remembered why I collected in the first place. This woman, Rebecca, who probably doesn’t have a touch of collector in her, reminded me that I collect books because of the stories they contain and the powerful interaction you can have with others when sharing your opinions and beliefs about a certain story or author or moment in history.

As she turned to me and said her farewell before it was her turn with the woman we all came to see, I smiled and thanked fate for making sure I didn’t leave my seat when I doubted my sanity only an hour before.

Of course, as I handed the book to the author, my inner collector pushed aside all thoughts of my newfound happiness. Instead, I was to focus on ensuring she didn’t personalize her inscription. But I was feeling particularly strong and I didn’t care about collecting. So I stood up to the collector and only cringed briefly when she bent back the front cover to make room for her hand and I didn’t make a peep when I heard the faint sound of a breaking spine.

Ah, yes, it feels so good to be a book reader today!

[Note: For all book readers out there, do me a favor. Don't ever treat your books with such disrespect as the one shown in the picture above. Love your books and lay them flat when being read. Thank you.]

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