Books are published by installments, and A Terry Teachout Reader is down to the short strokes. I got a package in the mail from Yale University Press the day before I left for Smalltown, U.S.A., containing two copies of the dust jacket, which is printed prior to the actual book. I’d wanted a piece of modern American art on the cover of the Teachout Reader, so I polled the readers of “About Last Night” a few months ago, asking whether they preferred Fairfield Porter’s “Broadway,” John Marin’s “Downtown. The El,” Stuart Davis’ “Owh! In San Pao,” or Davis’ “Ready-to-Wear.” The Porter won, and I can now report that the final product looks great. In fact, I’ve never had a better-looking dust jacket–and I’ve had some handsome ones.
No book is completely real to the author until he holds the very first copy in his hands. Until then, it becomes real by stages–the manuscript, the proofs, the dust jacket, the bound galleys–and the fact that it’s actually going to be published sinks in a little deeper with each additional step. By the time you’ve seen a half-dozen books through the press, you’re not likely to be surprised by any part of the process, but my heart still leaped when I pulled the dust jacket out of the envelope and held it in my hand.
I know the Teachout Reader isn’t going to be a best seller, and I’ve been around the track often enough to suspect that I’m going to get my share of kick-in-the-crotch reviews (which I won’t read–I’m scrupulous about that). That’s par for the course. On the other hand, I brought one copy of the dust jacket home with me, knowing my mother would take it to the office and show it off to her colleagues, which she did. If she could, she’d blow it up and slap it on a billboard in the center of town. She’s like that.
It’s not that my mother reads everything I write, least of all “About Last Night.” She hasn’t figured out blogs yet, nor is she especially media-savvy. We went to the neighborhood video store yesterday to rent a couple of movies to watch during my visit, and as I was picking my way through the westerns, she called out, “Oh, look! Have you heard of this one? I think Bill Murray’s always funny.” I turned around and saw her holding a copy of Lost in Translation. I nodded my head and said, “You might like that one, Mom. Let’s rent it.” I’ll tell you what she thinks of it tomorrow.
I’m sitting in my old bedroom as I write these words, listening to the whistle of a freight train off in the distance. It’ll keep on blowing for several more minutes, because the tracks run all the way through town, and it takes slow trains a long time to clear the city limits. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal about riding the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, and in the first paragraph I mentioned the trains that rumble through Smalltown. “Their tracks criss-crossed the main street of the small Missouri town where I spent my childhood,” I wrote, “and their lonesome whistles cleaved the night air as they carried sleeping strangers to places I’d never been.” The editor kicked the first draft back to me with a terse note saying that “lonesome whistles” was a clich