After watching the wonderful PBS American Masters documentary Harper Lee: Hey Boo, I pulled down my old copy of To Kill a Mockingbird with the intention of rereading it. I believed I’d read it in high school. I knew the story, and I thought the book had just faded from memory.
Perhaps I was certain I’d read it because it’s been sitting on my shelf for so many decades since I rescued it from my mother’s damp garage. She’d loved it and had written her name and declaration of possession in careful script on the front endpaper. Wondering what the value of such a book might be, I searched the Internet and was floored to see less battered versions of my “true first edition” selling for anywhere from twelve to twenty-five thousand dollars. Torn between my desire to read and preserve, I decided to buy the cheapest paperback I could find. And as I sank into it and under Ms. Lee’s spell, I instantly realized I was reading this book for the first time and had created a memory of reading it due to the book’s physical presence on my shelf as well as its place in our collective consciousness.
When I was young, the determining factor for which books I’d read was the amount of quotation marks. I liked books with talking, and probably put this one down after the opening pages of historical narrative. I’m embarrassed but I’m also glad. I’m glad I waited until I was this old and therefore experienced enough to appreciate what Ms. Lee did in a way that would have been impossible when I was young. I’m also glad I invested eight dollars in my paperback edition with an exquisite illustration by Sarah Jane Coleman that I could easily spread flat in order to appreciate the three-panel design of front cover-spine-back cover.
Reading a great story is a visceral experience for me and requires interacting with a book as object. When a passage floods my heart, I splay the book over my chest and moan and rock. My tears become part of the story as they are absorbed by paper pages. I caress, dog-ear, and spread the tome over my face with my nose burrowing into the spine, smelling it like an open, welcoming heart. You can do none of these things with a $25,000 first edition or an e-reader.
I’m happy to own a first edition; I appreciate its value, I love my mother’s signature, but if somebody wants to buy it, I’ll sell. Don’t worry, it’s safe—in a bag, carefully protected from the elements and my tendency to make love to books who make love to me.