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Favorite signatures: from Ginsberg to Sedaris

August 28, 2008 |  5:10 am

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Is book signing a curse? Prompted by a U.S. Craigslist ad for sweatshop-style autograph forgers, the U.K. has been abuzz with the legendarily traumatic author signings: James Ellroy taking down a stack of 65,000 first editions, Stephen King signing until his fingers cracked, the autograph line demanding their autographs in blood. David Sedaris admits that after seven hours he loses his decorum, writing a cheerful "Abortions, $13!" in one woman's book.

So signing is tiring, exasperating and sometimes unwise. But if it makes fans happy, isn't it worth it? Jacket Copy asked several readers -- who are also writers -- to tell us about their favorite autographed books. Turns out they're from that same David Sedaris... and Allen Ginsberg, Faye Weldon and more (here's a gallery). The details, which are the heart of the matter, from Maud Newton, Nam Le, Claire Zulkey, Said Sayrafiezadeh, Jami Attenberg, Anne Fernald, Mark Haskell Smith and me after the jump.

Maud Newton's writing talents are much in demand, but she finds time to blog about books at MaudNewton.com

It's hard to pick a favorite.  At first I thought of Grace Paley's "Collected Stories" (a particular treasure now that she's died. I wish I'd thought to take “Slaughterhouse Five” when I saw Kurt Vonnegut speak).

Then I remembered the personalized "Divided Kingdom" that arrived in the mail from Rupert Thomson the year after I blogged about leaving my copy on a plane while flying to my grandmother's funeral. As you can see from the photo, his signature came with instructions!   

I'd already bought and finished a second copy long before his arrived, so the signed one is pristine, which is unusual. Most of my books look like they've been mangled by wild dogs.

Nam Le is currently at the Melbourne Writers Festival; his debut collection, "The Boat," is the festival's No. 1 bestseller.

I've got an autographed first edition of Norman Rush's first book, his short story collection, entitled “Whites.”  It's inscribed as follows: "To Lynn, with deep affection.  Do you remember that you helped get my first story published, in Epoch, 30 years ago?  I do.  Love, Norman.  15 June 87."  I've treasured this book because it reminds me that even iconic writers like Rush start out small, that of course the first time stays special -- even after 30 years -- and that every copy of every book finds its own life, comes with its own story -- albeit in this case a somewhat heartbreaking one, given it somehow left "Lynn" and ended up, via a secondhand bookstore, in my clutches.  (Too, being fiction editor of the Harvard Review, I love the idea that a first publication in a literary journal can seed a career.)

Claire Zulkey  is a TV critic for LATimes.com and the Onion A.V. Club; she blogs at Zulkey.com. Next year, Dutton will publish her first young adult novel.

I met Sedaris after a reading in Oak Park, Ill., following the release of "Me Talk Pretty One Day." I couldn't believe how crowded the bookstore was and now know I was pretty lucky to be able to meet him. I was incredibly nervous for some reason yet told him that his style of writing influenced mine. He was incredibly kind and wrote this really sweet note. I published a tiny book of humor writing that is now out of print a few years later and sent it to Sedaris' publicist along with a copy of this signature. I have no idea if he got it and sometimes feel embarrassed that I did it, since I think it's obvious in hindsight that I was aping his style a bit, but still, this is still one of my most treasured books. Maybe I'll send him a copy of my next book and see if he writes me back asking me to cut it out.

Said Sayrafiezadeh's writing can be found many places, including the Paris Review. In 2009, Dial Press will publish his memoir about growing up communist, "When Skateboards Will Be Free."

My favorite autographed book is the one that so perfectly encapsulates my bizarre and tumultuous childhood. "The Crowned Cannibals: Writings on Repression in Iran," by Reza Baraheni, Iranian poet, dissident and, in 1973, imprisoned by the shah for 102 days. It is inscribed:

To Saeed Harris/Seyraf
And The Future of Our Revolution
Reza Baraheni
August, 13, '77
Oberlin

The name itself is a good illustration of how absolutely muddled my parentage was to everyone: Iranian father, Jewish mother, separated since I was 9 months. As for the revolution, Baraheni was referring to either the Iranian revolution, which at that point was about a year away, or to the worldwide socialist revolution, which also seemed imminent. I’ve always felt pretty certain that he meant the latter, mainly because I’ve associated his book with the campus of Oberlin College where we had gathered for the Socialist Workers Party annual convention. In any case, it’s a clear example of the kind of expectations that were placed on me at a young age being the son of socialists. It also shows how inappropriate most party members — including my parents — were toward children, considering that Baraheni thought that, at age 8, it was acceptable for me to be reading graphic poems about rape, execution and having electric shock administered to your genitals.

Jami Attenberg is the author of "The Kept Man" and "Instant Love." Her third book, "The Melting Season," will be published by Riverhead Books.

I have a copy of Fay Weldon's "Darcy's Utopia," which Weldon signed in 1990 in Norwich, England, where I was spending my junior year of college at the University of East Anglia. I went with my classmates to see her read in this packed lecture hall, and I remember there were security guards posted at the door, which seemed odd. And Weldon did a lovely, engaging reading, which I enjoyed very much, and then Salman Rushdie walked in! Everyone burst into applause. He did a reading and then had a nice discussion with Weldon. Of course, we were all excited to see him because it was not too long after "The Satanic Verses" had come out, and he was still getting all kinds of death threats, so I don't think he was going out in public very much. It was just really thrilling for everyone in the room. (Now, of course, Rushdie goes clubbing with hot models and in general has a much better social life than you and I ever will, but at the time, we thought we were witnessing a special historic moment.) Afterward, I waited for hours with everyone else to get our books signed by Weldon. Rushdie had been hustled off somewhere by security. It wasn't that I was such a huge Weldon fan (I had only become familiar with her that year in England), but I, like everyone else, wanted something permanent and physical to mark that moment in time.  Beneath her signature Weldon wrote "1002 days!"

Anne Fernald teaches at Fordham University and blogs about literature at Fernham. She is the author of "Virginia Woolf: Feminism and the Reader" and is currently at work on an edition of Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" for Cambridge University Press.

I don't have a lot of signed books and this is a bit of an oddball choice, but it means a lot to me -- more than many others that are signed by the writers. When I filed my dissertation (on Woolf's essays), my advisor (and now Huffington post blogger!) David Bromwich gave me a copy of the collected stories of Elizabeth Bowen.

He wrote "To Anne from David, this appropriate token of work completed on a great writer, by one of her few not-unworthy successors. 8/94"

It sounds stiff -- it did even then, but I love the gravity and solemnity of it. I treasure that gift, the book, and the sense that I had made a big step to writing my own...

Mark Haskell Smith's most recent novel is "Salty." He is also the author of "Delicious" and "Moist."

My favorite autographed books are ones written by friends.  I have signed books by pals like David Liss (whose upcoming "The Whiskey Rebels" is fantastic), Julie Buxbaum, Arthur Phillips, Tod Goldberg, and Seth Greenland on my shelves, but if I have to pick just one, I'll go with "Beautiful Children" by Charles Bock. Charles and I spent a couple days hanging around together on his book tour last year and became pals. He's not only a great guy, but his book is a triple hep an' cool heavy-metal masterpiece.

Carolyn Kellogg blogs about books here at Jacket Copy.

When Allen Ginsberg read at USC in 1991, I dragged one of my roommates along for company. Eric didn’t care about the beat poets -– he was a brilliant viola player, and viola was pretty much all he thought about, viola and cute guys. When the reading was over, I bought a copy of "Howl" and dithered nervously before bringing it to Ginsberg, who stood near the doors, ready to leave. I was trembling –- Kerouac was the one I idolized, but Ginsberg was very, very close. Allen Ginsberg heard the shake in my voice and gave me an enormous, calming hug. The man could beam. He signed my book and, holding it and idly adding to his signature, turned his attention to Eric. I cringed, fearing Eric would say something showing his ignorance of Ginsberg's greatness. But that didn’t matter. Ginsberg handed me my book, slipped his arm around Eric's waist and promised me he'd drive him home later. Eric beamed. Me, I got his autograph.

Make sure to check out the gallery of our favorite autographs. If you've got one, send a picture, and the story behind the signatiure to jacketcopyla [at] gmail.com.

--Carolyn Kellogg

photo credit: Jami Attnberg

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