Can I Have Your Autograph?

The discovery of a signature in an old book sends writer Tim Bowling on a literary journey.

Standing in front of a long row of weather-beaten books, Tim Bowling reaches over and grabs an old blue tome. We are at the University of Alberta’s Rutherford Library.

He tells me that the library is slowly replacing some of its collection with eBooks.

Bowling flips the book open and starts examining the first few pages, where an inscription from the author is handwritten in pencil: “To that real book woman Veronica Cooley.”

He looks up and says, “You know a computer is not going to give you that.”

Bowling is an award-winning poet and author. In May, he finished a one-year stint as the University of Alberta’s writer-in-residence. He’s also a book collector. For him, finding an inscription, a signature or even annotations in the margin of a book is one of the reasons he loves collecting them. “When you are talking about what is more magical about books than, say, text on a screen, is that books have that living history in them. Whether it’s something as mundane as a peanut-butter stain or whatever it is. There is such a human element in an actual material book.”

Books that are immaterial, the ones that you download onto e-reader or a computer, are becoming more and more common. Sales in Canada of e-books are climbing. Bowling worries that the change could take all the romance out of discovering a random book on the shelf. “It’s a big shame,” he says, eyeing the bookshelf. “Bookstores are disappearing, especially used book stores because everything is going online. You don’t have that powerful sense of serendipity.”

Bowling’s latest book, In the Suicide’s Library: A Book Lover’s Journey, based on his adventure through American literature, fatherhood and bibliomania, was sparked by the discovery of a book of poems by Wallace Stevens at the Rutherford Library.

“I picked a book up and just flipped it open,” he says, grabbing another book from the shelves and turning the page. “And right there, as clean a page as that, but a book that is like 70 years old, was a gorgeous signature.”

Bowling recognized the name. It was Weldon Kees, an obscure American poet who mysteriously disappeared in 1955. Legend has it that Kees jumped off the Golden Gate bridge.

In his book, Bowling stays true to the legend, imagining the foggy day Kees leapt to this death.

The discovery of the book, which is worth upwards of $1,000, the life of a talented and struggling poet and Bowling’s own struggles come together in the book. This year, In the Suicide’s Library was nominated for the City of Edmonton Book prize and short-listed for the Wilfred Eggleston Award for Nonfiction presented by the Alberta Literary Awards. (Myrna Kostash took both honours for her creative nonfiction odyssey spanning millennia and continents, Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium.)

As a writer, Bowling doesn’t know how e-books will affect him. His next book, a novel, will be published in 2012. Bowling and his publisher are still considering whether or not to digitize the work – he can only shield himself from technology for so long. But for his three children, Bowling hopes they will still have the opportunities to take the journeys that only cloth and paper books can provide. “I just hope there will be bookstores and libraries that they can browse in. I sure hope so. It is a wonderful thing to do.”

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