Thursday, December 1, 2011

My First Book, Really Mine

I still have the first book I ever earned, the 1,122-page Complete Sherlock Holmes, Doubleday hardcover edition. The book lost its boards long ago, and the exposed endleaf bears a facsimile of the author’s signature, A. Conan Doyle. Elsewhere there are four more signatures on it, all mine, none of them a facsimile.

Some day, if I do become a saint instead of a writer, this book will be a relic, what with the direct physical impressions my pencil and pen have left on it. Now it’s a lump of bound paper, but it is unmistakably mine and it warms my heart.

Here’s how I know it’s mine:

First, I remember how it was bought and where. My mother had made me a deal: read three books and she would buy me one. I recognized a sweet offer when I heard one. I read three Hardy Boys mysteries—total page count under 600—and netted over 500 pages in the bargain. My mother bought the book in a shop on Wayzata Boulevard, opposite the old train depot and Lake Minnetonka beyond, and we sat in the coffee shop next door for lunch as I pondered the first great book of my life, realizing for the first time though not the last that it’s one thing to lust after a book, another thing to read it. I was eight or nine years old. 

This trading up from Franklin W. Dixon, pseudonymous author of the Hardy Boys, to Arthur C. Doyle proved typical of me. A slow reader, I am a sucker for long books. Why else would I be crazy for Kristin Lavransdatter or The Master of Hestviken or and especially Infinite Jest.

I also know that the book is mine because of the four signatures.

First there is the formal “Webster L. Bull” carefully inscribed at the top of the flyleaf in the perfect block-letter penmanship of a third-grade scholar. 

Under this is a coarsely crossed-out address, no doubt “Box 308, Route 3, Wayzata, Minnesota.” It is illegible under the crossings-out, but it must be my eight-year-old address because immediately beneath it is my ten-year-old one, twelve hundred miles to the east. We moved when I was ten, and Holmes came cross-country.

With my new address on the endleaf of the book is a new “Webster Bull” (no middle initial), now in perfect cursive. I loved penmanship. Maybe I was having trouble with the capital L.

But that was not the end of my efforts to put my mark on literature. All our lives, my work in memoir has taught me, we continue to reinvent ourselves, telling new variants of an old story in ever more creative ways.

On the long side of the gathered pages I wrote “Bull, Web.” Web was my nickname in family days.

On the short side of the gathered pages is the fourth signature, “WEBULL.” Although I know I was playing with the name and still heard “Web Bull” in my mind, this could have been pronounced to rhyme with Weeble, as in “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.” Neither do we Bulls, by the way.

So there you have me, at the beginning of my own memoir: Webster L. Bull — Webster Bull — Bull, Web — Webull — I forget what came next. 

I have always been an underliner of books, and The Complete Sherlock Holmes is no exception. Is it a coincidence that the first sentence I presumably ever underlined, from chapter 2 of A Study in Scarlet,  serves as a moral for this eccentric post?

“So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it.”


  1. Have you ever read Nero Wolfe? I think it's even better than Sherlock Holmes.

  2. Haven't read Nero Wolfe, don't read many mysteries anymore, but will look around for him.


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