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To David, with fear and loathing

Thursday, May 28, 1998

Not so long ago, I went to a public reading given by Hunter Thompson and Johnny Depp, promoting the new film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. 

The whole thing was a surreal experience – a hero of the counter-culture appearing at a media event in the Virgin Megastore in Times Square, New York – but one of the strangest parts about it was the realisation that the audience weren’t really there to see either Hunter or Johnny. They were there to get their books signed.

They were only politely interested during the readings, but as soon as someone mentioned forming a queue for the signing session, everyone was suddenly awake and rushing to take their places. 

Of course, the process of having your book signed gets you close to your hero, and allows you engange in some personal communication (always assuming you can think of something more original to say than, ‘Could you make it out to Biff, please?’). 

But I’m not sure that was what got people excited. As far as I could tell, their main concern was just getting that name in the book. (Or, in this case, those names, since Johnny Depp signed them as well, which struck me as a bit of a cheek.)

What makes us want to own signed copies of books? If we’re personally known to the author, and the book is a gift from them, there’s an obvious and special attraction – a friend of mine recently did the Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney some small service, and received a couple of signed hardcover first editions, inscribed with thanks.  Brilliant. But if you’ve merely waited in line after a reading, then what real value has been added? 

In the same was as records, books are measures of your life, your changing situations and your developing interests. There’s a great moment in Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, where the narrator arranges his record collection in chronological order of purchase. It’s a chart of his own history, and only he can tell you how he went from Deep Purple to Sam Cooke (or some such) in seven records. 

So in the same way, inscriptions in books help to fix a moment in time, and it’s certainly worth remembering that you met the author, however briefly. 

But what to do if the author is nowhere to be found, or the book’s not a gift inscribed by a friend? I’d argue for putting your own name and a date at the front. And add the place too; even if it’s not special to you now, you future self might be very grateful of the reminder that you spent some time in Shrewsbury. 

While writing this, I pulled out my copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (purchased primarily to gain admittance to the reading), and scribbled my own inscription on the first page. Would I have been better to wait in line for Hunter Thompson? I don’t think so – I’m still making memories without his John Hancock. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, May 28th, 1998)

Posted by David in • Modest ProposalsLifeBooks