ME AND MY BOOKS How did they assume a life of their own?

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There is a moment in the movie Lawrence of Arabia when a tiny black dot on the shimmering desert horizon slowly enlarges into a galloping sheikh, played, if memory serves, by Omar Sharif. A book you write is like that - a small vibrant blur that gradually enlarges into a presence, preferably dashing and irresistible. When people ask me how many books I have written, they may think I am being coy when I say I do not exactly know. But do I count just the 40 hard-cover volumes that the obliging firm of Alfred A Knopf has published? What about the five slim books for children and the out-of-print paperback, Olinger Stories, or the peculiar but precious quasi-novel entitled Your Lover Just Called in Britain and Too Far To Go in the US, containing linked short stories not all of which have appeared in other collections? And what of the many limited editions, binding together material, often, that is not between hard covers anywhere else?

The bookmaking process - fussing with the type, the sample pages, the running heads, the dust jacket, the flap copy, the cover cloth - has perhaps been dearer to me than the writing process. The latter has been endured as a process tributary to the former, whose envisioned final product, smelling of glue and freshly sliced paper, hangs as a shining mirage luring me through many a grey writing day. The moment when the finished book or, better yet, a tightly packed carton of finished books arrives on my doorstep is the moment of truth, of culmination; its bliss lasts as much as five minutes, until the first typographical error or production flaw is noticed. One collection of stories, Pigeon Feathers, had developed in the printing too narrow a top margin, and another, Problems, too exiguous a bottom margin. The jacket I had designed for The Coup, based upon a photograph of Timbuktu's boxy dried-mud houses, had been spurned by higher- ups as making it look too much like a non-fiction book, and the solid green jacket achieved as a compromise became, thanks to a tinting effect of the coated stock, not at all the clarion green I had seen in proof. Such inevitable blemishes, though extraliterary, inaugurate my estrangement from the book, which becomes distasteful to me before its life with the public has so much as begun.

The first flurry of this life, marked by hopeful arrays in bookstores, by advertisements in the plucky organs of the print trade, by inexorably mixed reviews, by blushing interviews with the giddy author, is brutish and short. Very quickly the book, scarcely news in the first place, becomes old news. Seeing an unbought stack glimmering pathetically in a window, the author averts his eyes and, like the bad Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, passes by on the other side. The books call out with little surface details - a title type once fervently debated, a topstain tenderly selected - for a recognition now stonily denied. Soon, like a chorus of cries from a sinking ship, the books die away; they eddy into the back shelves of bookstores, and then into the mountainous return piles, to reappear a year or two later in the discount catalogues and in a paperback version. The royalty statements, by the time they appear, are like shreds of wreckage which float to the surface of a cruel, inscrutable sea.

And yet the books do not quite vanish. The author retains some copies, and spies others in the homes of his children and his friends, where he has bestowed them. Occasionally he sees a stranger scowling into one on an airplane or in a hospital ward. My instinct is to tear the book from the reader's hands; I wonder if this reaction is abnormal or generally shared within the neurotic literary profession. One has sought this silent intimacy and then is shocked by it; it seems so naked and out of control.

The stranger, with his or her grimy fingers and glassy gaze, is so clearly not the ideal reader, all-forgiving and miraculously responsive, whom I vaguely courted as I wrote. My sly, greedy wish to have my books bought and read cannot stand up to even a little experiential reality.

Once a year I do duty at a church book fair, and stand amid table after table, receding to the horizon, of the discarded works of John P Marquand, Thomas B Costain, A J Cronin, Mary Ellen Chase (who gave my first novel a generous review ages ago) Pearl Buck, Frank Yerby, John Gunther, Hendrik Willem Van Loon, and those innumerable others who, in the long middle of our finally terminating century, studded the best- seller lists and the sunporches, bedrooms, and dens of the local bourgeoisie. Death and demolition have released these books from the crannies of their sequestration. A few of my own yellowing titles crop up among them; their purchasers, startled to find me alive and standing there, ask me to sign them, and thus I touch for a moment, as they surge towards me and then away again, battered copies of Couples, rubbed and rain-damaged Rabbits, and foxed, dog-eared Witches of Eastwicks, the diabolic purple I chose for the cover cloth faded by the passing years to an innocent mauve. These books of mine have been through the mill. They have travelled in the ill- mapped wilderness of the reading public. Their scars of use shame me. While I cowered unseen, these books bravely ventured forth and took their chances.

The literary business, with its fitful attempts to imitate the vastly better-financed glamour of the movie and television and music businesses, comes down to books, the humble, durable dregs of reading. My wife has taken up genealogy, and at her side I visit in summertime the small towns of Connecticut and New York. She gravitates to the local history section of the trim little libraries of brick and ironstone, and I drift into the general stacks, sneakily seeking out, between the massed bestsellers of Anne Tyler and Leon Uris, my own tomes. There are usually a few there, some written so long ago that my connection to them seems grandpaternal. The condition of their spines, and the dates stamped on the checkout cards, tell me more than I want to know about my readership or lack of it.

Some, usually those written when I was young - Rabbit, Run, The Centaur, Pigeon Feathers, with its pinched top margins - have worn enough to win a staid, stamped second binding. On one steel shelf, in a Hudson Valley town with its own tributary creek gurgling over a dam and under a bridge near the library door, I saw that S., in its saucy pink cloth, had a spine distinctly more aslant than the others: it had been read more. The reviews, as I recalled, had been sour; there had been feminist muttering, though I had put my heart and soul into my heroine, who leaves her posh home for a raffish ashram. The publisher had evinced high hopes for sales; the generous first printing had proved to be more than enough. Here, years later, while water audibly rushed over the nearby dam, none of that seemed to matter. What mattered was that, to judge from the book's condition, the readership of this small town, mostly female, as readership is everywhere, had recognised in S. my attempt at a woman's book, a book for women. A sort of blessing seemed to arise from the anonymous public. I had been, mutely, understood.

Meanwhile, the books multiply. Foreign editions, revised editions, paperbacks in a new format all come to the door and beg to be cherished. My own books have crowded all the others out of one room and have pressed on into another. Boxes of them weigh down the attic joists and moulder in the basement and the barn. Their swelling bulk threatens to push me away from the point of it all. The thin edge of the wedge - my very first book, just barely a book, a collection of mostly light verse, with its thrifty pale-grey boards and black spine - had a bright purity slowly swallowed up by the subsequent thickening. In the backward glance, I tend to lose sight of content and, asked to name favourites, think most fondly of those volumes that, like Hugging The Shore and Buchanan Dying, came out especially well, to my mind, as examples of book production - good margins, nice cover, pleasant heft.

A master set of the 40 Knopf hardcovers sits in a polychrome row opposite my desk. They are stripped of their jackets and marked up with typos and second thoughts toward some ultimate perfected edition. Somewhere in their several million pondered, proof-read, printed words, I must have done my best, sung my song, had my say. But my panicked awareness, as the cut-off age of 65 approaches, is of all that isn't in them - almost everything, it suddenly seems. Worlds are not in them. In the face of this vacuity arises the terrible itch to - what else? - write another book, a book that, like one more ingredient sprinkled into a problematic batter, will make the whole thing rise. The little black dot on the horizon begins to quiver. Squinting, I can almost see the jacket, and make out the title page, in 36-point Perpetua.

Reprinted by permission; 1997 John Updike. Originally in The New Yorker. All rights reserved.