The Last Place You Look
Michael Ondaatje is coming to town, and I've spent the last two weeks trying to get my mitts on my British first edition of The English Patient.
It's been driving me crazy.
I knew exactly where The Cinnamon Peeler was. Same with Handwriting. In the Skin of a Lion took some digging, as did my second copy of The Conversations, Ondaatje's excellent discussion of film craft with ace editor Walter Murch.
When I moved, I thought I was careful to put all my valuable books in the same spot, and this edition of The English Patient certainly qualifies. On the other hand, I've had to make more room over the years, and that means boxing up books and sending them to the garage. If I was smart, only dead authors would be exiled there, because you really never know who's coming to town and with over a hundred boxes of books in the garage, it's a pain in the ass to look for things.
When Jim Shepard visited, I couldn't find Batting Against Castro or Kiss of the Wolf. I had a similar problem with Brad Watson. Of course, signed copies of their books aren't worth $450 (no offense, fellas).
You're probably asking yourself, "why not a spreadsheet, hotshot?" to which I reply, "what am I, a freakin' psycho with OCD?"
Last weekend, I exhausted all the places The English Patient could be inside the house.
This morning, after spending almost two hours on yardwork, I went to the garage.
I started in one corner, and found this perfectly respectable 4th printing of Ulysses (Random House, 1934).
Technically, this book belongs in the garage, since James Joyce is never going to sign it. But it's such a striking dustjacket I couldn't leave it out there.
And while I was at it, I figured I may as well liberate Jean Stafford, too.
But that was it.
I was in the garage with a single purpose. I had to remain faithful to my system of opening boxes, resealing them, and stacking them in an orderly fashion.
I was miserable for much of the morning.
I did find other things of interest. My signed Maurice Sendak books, which definitely do not belong in the garage. Some of my favorite art books (Weegee, Halsman, Damien Hirst). A couple of Lillian Ross collections and an old William Maxwell novel that belong inside the house with my other New Yorker authors. In all, I stacked at least five dozen interesting, worthwhile books on my dining room table.
I managed to clear out a large segment of the garage, but The English Patient refused to present itself and I slowly resigned myself to the fact that even though I own the book, it just wasn't going to get signed. I'd find it eventually, just not in time for Michael Ondaatje's appearance.
I gave up. Threw my hands up in defeat. I came into the house, had a drink of water, and surveyed the mess I'd made dragging various books from the garage.
But I couldn't quit.
I went back out for one last, desperate attempt. Over in the corner, in an area I had't bothered with, I pulled out an unusually lightweight box. Definitely not the place for a valuable book.
Inside, I found this:
I've had it longer than any of my personal relationships, which might explain why none of those personal relationships lasted.
There was also a cardboard promotion for Elvis Costello's Kojak Variety (1995).
And there was a lot of dust.
But there was also a single plastic bag from a popular used bookstore, and inside the bag was my copy of The English Patient.
Sometimes I remember a book being in better shape than it really is. A torn dustjacket, a remainder mark, a later printing. It's rare, but it happens.
My copy of The English Patient has no visible flaws.
Even the used price, written in pencil on the front free endpaper, is light and easily erased.
It was only $6.
Next week, when all my Ondaatje books are finally signed, they'll be lovingly wrapped in paper and plastic and carefully sealed inside a box
And that clearly marked box will stay inside the house for a long time.