Early this morning, a box arrived in the mail. It was large, of a size that would normally house a VCR, and of a weight that required me to lever it sweatily to the floor and shove it along with my foot, like a British soccer fan presenting his credentials to a visiting German. My father had warned me that, as a result of a trip to some rural smokery, he was sending a gift of smoked salmon, smoked trout, and God knows what else. Once they take up smoking, you know, those professional smokers don’t know where to stop. Even by my father’s standards, this seemed an unusually generous present; judging by the dimensions, indeed, he would appear to have mailed me an entire smoked dolphin. Either there had been a mistake in the distribution, or we would all be eating Flipper mousse for the next month.
Picture my disappointment, therefore, when I ripped open the packaging and found a load of books. Not just any old books, either, but something far more dispiriting: my books. To be precise, 16 copies of Nobody’s Perfect, which are now piled high in a corner, in the way that sandbags are stacked against an encroaching flood. That may be one of the better uses for the damn thing; it could also function, if rimmed in velvet ribbon and dusted with paper stars, as a tasteful Christmas doorstop for an uncomplaining aunt. My sneakiest plan relies on the fact, easily verified but seldom aired, that women read in the bath and men read on the lavatory. (That is, if men read at all. I increasingly suspect that most men do not read, and that those men who say they read throw all their weight into the saying rather than the reading. And even those who do read tend to read what other people say about reading: They will quote the reviews, they will discuss the jacket copy and the author photograph—they will do anything, in short, other than commit themselves to the brute fact of the book, to the pure, uncut high of reading itself. I should know, for I am one of them.) All of which means that, if Nobody’s Perfect is going to spend time in the nation’s bathrooms, it should pull its weight. The book is seven hundred and twenty pages long, and one way to atone for that crime against nature would be to perforate pages four to five hundred, and to arrange, in what would surely be a first for bibliopharmacology, to have them gently moistened with aloe vera. If you happened to be caught short during your perusal of my Showgirls review, you could flip forward, tear out the essay on Evelyn Waugh, and experience immediate relief. The shade of Waugh, though doubtless as furious as the corporeal version, could scarcely object, given that he himself had the comic wherewithal to die athwart a toilet.
The trouble with this morning’s package is that it yielded the first batch of my English edition. Oh, dear. I try not to find fault with my native land, which really was quite an interesting place to be somewhere around 1580, as long as you owned a decent little castle and employed 40 men to serve you a platter of roast swan stuffed with quail thighs; yet evidence for British decline continues to crop up. When did American books start to outclass their cousins? And how dare England maintain any lingering snootiness toward American culture, when the United States plainly devotes more care to the art—an essential art, being at once fine, decorative, and applied—of book-making? Friends beg me to bring back U.S. editions of novels they admire, solely because they love the soft, cut-edged pages that are still used by American printers. When I sign a copy of the book in New York, I feel like a monk getting off on the joys of naked vellum; when I sign in London, the pen stalls and ploughs inward, as if trapped in a mixture of blotting paper and oatmeal. Historians claim that wartime rationing was phased out in Britain by the 1950s, but I wonder. Today’s copies of Nobody’s Perfect should ideally be read with a mug of watery cocoa, a dish of powdered egg, and the pleasant murmur of anti-aircraft fire.
I am left, now, to contemplate a book launch. The prospect should by rights appall me, but for once I am possessed by a singular calm. For I alone know that, come next Tuesday, my English publisher will stand on a table in West London, introduce me to the assembled mob, dip his hand into a cardboard box, prepare to flourish a copy of my life’s work, and come up instead with a warm, wet, week-old fistful of smoked fish. I cannot wait.