Recently I walked into seven major bookstores in Manhattan and Brooklyn, picked up a stack of a just-published paperback guidebook to Brooklyn, introduced myself to the staff as the author, and offered to sign my books. (Bookstores love author-signed books.) The staff couldn't have been more accommodating.
Just one thing: Nobody checked to make sure if I actually was the author.
In fact I am. But think about it: you need a photo ID to cash a check, take a flight, have an alcoholic drink, apply for government benefits, register to vote, or rent an apartment in the Big Apple. In this city of obsessions over money, real estate and success, the more easily one's identity can be stolen, the more tightly it's clutched to one's chest.
I've authored a bunch of books, eight to be exact. All nonfiction books, they've been produced by a number of well-known publishers. A guidebook to New York's borough of Queens. A dictionary of public health words. A cheery retirement guidebook for baby boomers, complete with cartoons. My photo has appeared on the back cover of only three. I'm no celebrity, so nobody would know what I look like were my picture not on the book. Hilariously, I've signed my books in bookstores from New York to California, yet nobody has ever sought to verify that I am, in fact, who I say I am.
The Big Apple is famously laissez-faire about self-reinvention. New York's a place where people can repeatedly lose, find and repurpose themselves. Experimenting with, and fantasizing about alternative identities is almost a given. And for some, authorship is a line item on their personal bucket list like seeing Mach Pichu. People want the experience, to feel it.
The ritual of signing one's books in a bookstore is a cayenne kick of affirmation for those of us who spend months or years hunched in front of a laptop. To walk into the store unannounced, crack open a copy of your newly-published work, turn to the title page, and scrawl your signature is hugely gratifying. Pen in hand, there often comes a moment when you conjure images of those who will buy the book, and how they'll use it. Is it personal or a gift? Will it travel to Boston or Berlin? Will my signature add value to the buyer? You might wish your penmanship were better, after all those years spent typing. Then suddenly you've finished signing your name to all ten or twenty copies, but like candy, you want just a little more.
So, as I make my rounds, ask for a pen, offer to sign books, and leave my mark and a happy staffer behind the desk, my slightly paranoid writer's inner voice wonders: What's to keep someone in a Walter Mitty-esque mood from borrowing a moment in the authorial limelight? What prevents someone from enjoying a few fleeting if fake moments as "the author"?
Recently, the staff in one bookstore (all of whom, it seemed, lived in Brooklyn) ran to the back to fetch every copy of my new Brooklyn guidebook in the shop, as well as extracting one from the window display. They fussed sweetly over which pen was best: the traditional black Sharpie? Or a pen with an eye-catching color? They stuck special stickers, "Autographed" on the cover of each signed book. We schmoozed about the weather (cold) and Brooklyn's cultural scene (hot). They returned to the window the newly-signed copy, even slipping it into a more central location. In another shop, the staff snapped a photo of me holding my book for their social media feeds.
Transaction complete, I walked out as I'd walked in, claiming to be myself.
Or, as the case may be, perhaps not.