On Saturday I saw five copies of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong at the Barnes & Noble on Eighty-Second Street and Broadway in Manhattan. It was the first time that I’d seen Pops in a brick-and-mortar bookstore. A little later in the day I heard from my friend Ariel Davis, who saw Pops in a store on the Upper East Side, snapped a picture of the display, and e-mailed it to me.
I published my first book in 1989, and I’ve been around the track several more times since then, so I can’t honestly say that it thrilled me to the marrow to see yet another book of mine on sale. What pleased me most was the excitement of Ariel, who moved from Alabama to New York a couple of years ago and subsequently worked as one of my research assistants on Pops. “I’m beside myself seeing my name in print!” she tweeted.
While anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m the least blasé of people, I suppose it’s inevitable that such experiences should sooner or later cease to be exciting to the professional writer. Dostoevsky said it: “Man gets used to everything–the beast!” It’s been a long time since I got a charge out of seeing my name in print. Even so, I have yet to reach the level of detachment attained by Paul Hindemith when he decided that he was too busy to attend the world premiere of his Symphonia Serena in Dallas in 1947. “Why should I go to hear my own works?” he said to a friend.
Geoffrey Skelton, Hindemith’s biographer, tells the rest of the story:
In the end he did consent to go, though only because he had a certain musical problem on his mind and thought that he could best work it out in the train, where he would be undisturbed. Carl Miller, who gave me the clearest account of this episode which is one of the favourite and most widely recalled ones at Yale, said that his students were amazed when he came into the classroom, grinning from ear to ear. “Why aren’t you in Dallas?” they asked. “Because I had solved my problem by the time I got to New York,” he said. “So I got out of the train and came back home.”
I admire Hindemith’s sangfroid–sort of–but I don’t share it. To be sure, I’m pretty damn busy myself these days. Not only am I seeing shows most nights between now and the time when I hit the road for the first leg of my book tour, but I’m in the process of deciding on the subject of my next book, and Paul Moravec and I are also talking over various possibilities for our second opera. Yet it never occurred to me for a moment not to stop by Barnes & Noble on Friday, and when my friend told me how excited she was to see Pops on sale in her neighborhood bookstore, I thought at once of the morning in 1977 when my very first piece of professional writing, a concert review, was published by the Kansas City Star. I got up early that day, drove to the nearest honor box, popped in a quarter, pulled out a copy of the Star, and turned as quickly as I could to the page where my six-inch review was printed.
The eighteen-year-old H.L. Mencken did the same thing on February 24, 1899, the morning after he filed his first two stories for the Baltimore Herald. “I was up with the milkman the next morning to search the paper,” he recalled in Newspaper Days, “and when I found both of my pieces, exactly as written, there ran such thrills through my system as a barrel of brandy and 100,000 volts of electricity could not have matched.”
I remember, Ariel. Oh, how I remember.