November 05, 2011
“This is the funeral pyre for thought in America today,” Mr. Wayne told spectators as he lighted the first batch from the warehouse where he has gathered thousands of books in the 10 years he has run the store, Prospero’s Books. When Mr. Wayne sought to thin out the collection, he said, he found that he could not even give the books away to libraries and bookshops, which said they were full. So, he said, he began burning the books to protest society’s diminishing support for the printed word.
—New York Times
THE HOT BOOK
Where am I? The Vegas Book Show? San Diego Litcon? Have I made it to the end, to Powell’s, at long last?
“You’re in Cleveland,” Alison says. “Barnes & Noble Arena.”
Cleveland? How can I be in Cleveland? Wasn’t I just in St. Louis?
“We had to move a couple things around to get out of Collin’s way.” The Mockingjay tour, in its sixieth week. Two dozen singing, dancing, battling teens. Why can’t she just read the damn book, like the rest of us?
“Drink me,” I say, only half alluding. Alison pours us two Absolut Writinis (8 oz. Absolut in a coffee mug with an Altoid chaser), courtesy of our tour sponsor. I fish my right hand out of the bucket and reach for my medicine. “Back in the bucket,” Alison says, all marm, pressing the mug into my left. I return my right to the ice water, where it now lives. It’s not even my hand anymore; it’s ballooned into a monstrous cartoon of a hand, Homer Simpson’s mitt. It lies quietly on the bottom like a strange aquatic animal. (Not bad. I’ll have to use that.)
The chanting. Rhythmic, primal, it begins:
Ree -ding . . . Ree -ding . . . Ree -ding!
“Al,” I say, finishing my drink. “I don’t think I can do this tonight.”
She sighs. Alison’s a seasoned tour pro and has heard this before, from me, from DeLillo, from all the chicks with lits. “You’ve got twenty thousand people out there, some paid scalpers three hundred bucks to come hear you read,” she preaches from the playbook.“Not to mention what they spent on T-shirts, and readings CDs, and giant foam bookmarks. . . .”
“They’re not even laughing at the jokes anymore. They’re laughing at the punctuation.”
“Your punctuation is funny.”
“So many people. Such long names.”
“You’re lucky it’s not a memoir,” Alison says. “They’d tear you apart.” Poor choice of words, I think, considering this very stadium held the last reading of James Frey, somewhat ironically torn into only eighty-seven little pieces.
Ree-ding! . . . Ree-ding!! . . . Ree-ding!!!
I hoist out what used to be my writing hand. “It’s dead,” I pronounce.
“Marty,” Alison says.
Dr. Marty, the tour physician, shuffles over. He lays my bloated corpse of a paw across his lap. He pokes it. “Boy’s right,” the doc says in his syrupy Staten Island drawl. “This thing’s about to fall off.”
“If I wanted your medical opinion, I would have asked for it,” Alison snaps.
The good doctor nods and reaches into his bag, removing his fixings. He pops the syringe into the vial, pulls back on the plunger, and slowly withdraws a potent cocktail of vitamin B, morphine, and Major League Baseball–grade steroids. He taps my wrist twice and plunges the needle in. I don’t even feel it.
“This got Updike through the Couples tour,” Dr. Marty says.
“You think it’s bad now. Back then they not only bought the books, they read them.”
Outside, the crowd has gone into an undulating roar. They are doing the wave, apparently.
“We better get you in there,” Alison says. “We don’t want another San Antonio.” The Last Symbol fiasco. Dan Brown’s flight was delayed. Before he could be helicoptered in, eight people were dead and posed ritualistically.
As I climb into the golf cart, I notice something on Fox News. People. Anger. Flames.
They’re all throwing my book into the fire. I could tell because of the distinctive cover.
I had said a stupid thing. The reporter showed me one of the full-page ads my publisher had taken out in newspapers across the country, quoting some blogger calling my novel “the greatest book ever written.” Surely, the reporter asked, I didn’t think my book was better than the Bible.
“It’s funnier than the Bible,” I said.
And I believe that. The Bible isn’t funny at all, except in a broad conceptual way. But I shouldn’t have said it, probably.
There are bonfires going in twenty-six cities, Megyn Kelly says, and on a couple of cruise ships. I stare at the screen. My words, on fire. My lovely books, thousands of them, turning to ash.
I chuckle. They didn’t even get a volume discount.
The cart comes out of the tunnel into what was once center field. The crowd roars and squeals in equal measure. They have come for the word. And I’m going to read it to them.