Last year, my friend Gina Caciolo wanted to publish a “chapbook.” She’s a former student of mine, now in grad school in California. She asked if I had a really short book manuscript lying around.
Huh, I thought. I think I have just the thing.
Gina was taking an MFA publishing class. As usually happens, Gina had to edit, design, and print a short booklet called a “chapbook.” If you’ve never heard of a chapbook, or wonder what it is, it’s sort of like a pamphlet, or a church bulletin. Writers use them as samples of their work. They are used as calling cards, or collector’s items. Even famous writers often produce chapbooks, which are essentially the B-sides of the world of letters.
My submission to Gina was How to Ride a Bike in Pittsburgh, a free-verse manifesto on what it’s like to cycle full-time in the Steel City. The chapbook is about pedaling Pittsburgh’s massive hills, but it’s also about the low-rent, high-octane bohemian lifestyle that makes this city so much fun. Gina told me the book would take an “accordion” format. That sounded awful—like an even cheaper way to make a really cheap book. I shrugged my shoulders. It’s just a class project, I thought. Whatever she wants to do, I guess.
Then a package arrived in the mail. I split the two round covers—which are designed to look like spoked wheels—and the “chapbook” unraveled. My mouth actually hung open. This is beautiful! I thought. Then I showed it to friends. “That’s awesome!” they exclaimed.
Today, How to Ride a Bike in Pittsburgh is one of my favorite publications. What’s more, the limited-edition series is individually stamped with little bicycles, so each one is slightly different. Not to mention the folding and stitching. All in all, the books are a laborious effort. Without a second thought, folks hand over $10 and take their copy home. I’ve seen them prominently displayed on shelves. The words are cool. But it’s Gina who did a bang-up job.
Yesterday, Gina wrote me to express good news: “Your book is part of the digital collection of artist books at the CalArts Library! Share this! WOOT!”
I was overjoyed. Ever since I was a kid, I have wanted to see my own work in libraries and bookstores. I have wanted to stumble into a familiar spine on the shelf of dusty volumes, smile with recognition, and wonder who has thumbed through its pages. Now, in a way, this was finally happening. In a distant library, four time zones away, someone could take out a hard copy of my chapbook. They could relish reading it as much as I had relished writing it. And anybody, anywhere, can see a little digital photograph of what it looks like.
The same afternoon, I was checking out some DVDs at the Carnegie Library, and I suddenly wondered what had happened to my first book, The Archipelago. I know there was a copy floating around the library system, but could I check its stats?
“Sure,” said the nasal librarian. “What’s it called?”
The librarian couldn’t spell “archipelago,” and my name confused him, so I wrote them down. After a quick search, he not only told me the book’s check-out rate: He generously wrote it all down. And he smiled as he did this. “Congratulations,” he said, sniffing approvingly. “You should be proud of that.”
As it turns out, there isn’t one copy of The Archipelago, but three. One exists in the main branch, in Oakland, it’s been borrowed five times and renewed twice. Another copy is in Moon Township—a distant suburb by the airport—and it’s been borrowed six times, also renewed twice. And the copy in the Penn Hills was borrowed once (thanks, I imagine, to my friend Jenny Zeke, whose mother is a librarian there).
I’ve decided not to dwell on these numbers—it would be easy to wonder why a borrower needed to renew a 200-page book with lots of pictures. I might be curious why people in Moon Township are interested in the plight of Bosnian refugees. But these are passive concerns. As a diehard library patron, I love to see the life cycle of a book. It’s sort of like checking in on prodigious former students. That’s something Kindles and Nooks will never replace—the purity of a real, dog-eared paperback, held in real hands. No royalty is worth more than that.