Sunday, August 21, 2011

U and I and Me: A Tale of a Nicholson Baker book signing

I've been rereading the book U & I, by Nicholson Baker, a book that was assigned to me back in grad school.   It's a hilarious 179-page essay about his imaginary friendship with John Updike.   It brought to mind my one and only meeting (if you could call it that) with Baker, on a stormy night at a Barnes 'n' Noble in 2004.  I went home that snowy night and wrote down what transpired....  Here's a blast from my literary past.


U & I & Me.

I have just walked home in the slush from a reading at the Astor Place Barnes & Noble, where Nicholson Baker read from A Box of Matches, his new novel.  My right hand that is typing on this very keyboard just shook his right hand.  Except for handing the sales clerk my credit card to purchase said book, the hand has touched little else, as it was swaddled in a warm glove for protection from the cold and germs that would otherwise infiltrate the connection I’d just had with a great author. 

And!  He answered my question:  “My question is about U & I – after the book was published, did John Updike acknowledge you or did you become friends?”  He repeated the question for the benefit of the audience and gave a brief summary of the book – that he basically worshipped Updike and set out to write a book about the influence Updike had had on him, using quotes from U’s work, but entirely from memory.  He answered my question by saying that from what he’d heard from people that Updike waited awhile to read it.  “Eventually,” Baker said, “Updike sent me a letter and a signed book, saying ‘to the man that made me famous.’  But no, we haven’t been out to dinner or anything.”  I realize now I’m quoting Baker, perhaps misquoting him, not unlike how he tried to quote Updike.   In fact, I vaguely recall – and vaguely recalling something was good enough for Baker in U & I – that he had went to one of Updike’s readings and had him sign a book.  So now, having had Nicholson Baker, an author I have admired and tried to emulate in my own writing, sign “To Catherine  --Nicholson Baker,” in one of his books, I feel like the process has come full circle.  U & I & Me.

Why Me?  Well, I’ve recently written a novel, and incorporated footnotes –only when they seemed called for—placed at the bottom of pages, not unlike the placement of the footnotes in Baker’s novel, The Mezzanine.  His attention to the minutiae of every day life has inspired me on countless occasions, and his essay from Lumber and Other Thoughts has forever changed the way I look at seemingly idle book placement in catalogues from Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel and the like.

Baker was older than I expected, with white hair and beard, very soft spoken and congenial.  With all of the fuss about Vox and Fermata, I figured he might be a little creepy, a little bit sleezy even, but no.  He seemed like the kind of guy you’d want to have as a neighbor, or a professor.

I want to write a review of Box of Matches, but I wonder whether my take on the book will be overly colored by his new celebrity status in my mind.  He’s no super-author, he’s no Tom Clancy, Ann Rice or Stephen King, but he has the kind of cult following you’d want if you were an author.  Literary, artsy types.  There were a lot of men in the crowd of listeners, and he probably liked that.   Not because he’s gay, that’s not what I meant--he’s married and has two kids—but because I suspect a literary author would want masculine readers, not readers of chic lit.  This was no Bridget Jones’ Diary reading, no.

While he was signing my book, I said, “Thank you for answering my question about U & I.”  He responded “It’s my best book -- I’m glad you asked.”

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