This has certainly been a year of many first experiences: first book, first book tour, first time, (hopefully not last), inside Bob Dylan’s house and, just yesterday, the interesting, if somewhat distressing moment when I first ran my IPhone through a mixed fabrics cycle in the washing machine. All experiences have been valid and some more pleasant than others. However, over the weekend I encountered one of the oddest first experiences of the year so far.
Last November whilst visiting Portland I attended a showcase of writers featured in McSweeney’s Literary Journal. This took place in Powell’s City of Books; a book store so magical, so impossible to leave that most of the city’s writers are permanently decamped in its coffee shop. It was not the best reading I’ve ever been party to, (neither was it the worst). One guy played acoustic guitar whilst reading a story about a giant slug, trapped inside the glove compartment of a car. This was memorable but not very good. The other guy read a slightly better short story but I can’t recall anything about it, save for the fact that in his introduction he mentioned nipping down to Powell’s fiction section earlier in the evening, just to check they had his short story collection in stock. This sort of anxious book checking, it should be noted, is not pride, rather a strange affliction like a nervous tic which comes over every author upon publication of their book. It is impossible to walk past the appropriate bookshelf upon which your book should be filed without at least glancing over to verify it’s there. During the early days of Malcolm Orange‘s release I visited the fiction section of Waterstones so many times, (pretending to peruse Young Adult and Crime Fiction until some unnatural force dragged me to the same snug shelf spot, between Ciaran Carson and Lucy Caldwell), that I began to fear Waterstones’ security guard would think I was casing the joint for some sort of literature heist.
The McSweeney’s contributor, (unnamed), did indeed find several copies of his short story collection shelved in Powell’s fiction section. His joy, however, was short-lived for, upon opening a used edition of his own book he discovered that it was not only signed, but worse still, signed with a rather flowery quotation to a young lady whom he’d been pursuing amorously under the suspicion that she felt similarly. This anecdote I remember and nothing at all about what the poor man read. I did at the time feel mildly sorry for him. Today I empathise entirely having, for the first time, encountered my own novel on the shelf of a second-hand charity book shop. I’m still not quite sure how I feel about this or what the correct protocol is for author’s encountering their own, unwanted books.
I saw Malcolm out of the corner of my eye whilst perusing the A – D section. After six months of carting him round I could spot him a mile away and, on account of being tangerine orange, he’s pretty hard to miss in a line up of black spined regular novels. At first I felt mortified. An emotion rushed over me similar to that experienced on Valentine’s Day of Primary Six when a young man, (who had warty hands, so I’m counting this a lucky escape), returned my homemade Valentine’s card, unwanted. Thereafter, I was overcome by the desire to draw the attention of fellow shoppers to my own book, languishing on the shelf of Oxfam Books, in close proximity to Angela Carter and Raymond Carver, albeit incorrectly filed outside the Irish Literature section. I would have signed it for the Oxfam Books man, if he’d been so inclined. I would have moved it to its correct place on the Irish Literature shelf, nestled between Ciaran and Lucy but I thought it best not to even touch for fear that the possessive parent in me might kick in and I’d feel compelled to take it home with me. Finally, I decided I didn’t quite know how I was feeling. The situation was not, in itself, troubling. The book looked read. Mercifully it wasn’t signed to any young man I am currently enamoured with. It wasn’t signed to anyone and so I concluded, for my own sanity, fully understanding that this would be the first of many similar experiences, that some stranger had read Malcolm and simply wanted to pass it on to someone else. I bought a nice hardback copy of The Luminaries for £2.50 and left Oxfam book a little weighted down by the whole experience.
* The recently coined word for the very particular emotion experienced upon encountering one’s own book in a charity shop for the first time. Copyright Orla McAlinden January 17th 2015