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by Malcolm Page

SHIRLEY MacLAINE WILL only sign books purchased for the autographing. Ms. MacLaine will sign new paperbacks and personalize only her new hardcover, Dance While You Can." This fierce notice from Tower Books in Seattle started me thinking. My first reaction was: who wants Shirley MacLaine's signature, in paperback or hardback, anyway? As a casual collector myself, though, I ask more earnestly whether an autograph gathered at a signing in a bookstore really counts. This appears too easy, like buying already autographed books, or like fishing in a trout farm. The thrill of the hunt - like waiting in hope at the theatre stage-door after the show - is part of the game.

I identified Tom Stoppard standing in the foyer of London's Bloomsbury Theatre at his Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth, and - luckily and unusually texts of his plays were on sale. Anthony Burgess lectured on Joyce - who else in Dublin. Afterwards a small group of autograph-hunters surrounded him at the side of the stage. Burgess was signing, smiling, gossiping, cheerful enough, while a burly Irishman beside him kept shouting "Have mercy!" and was unheeded. I was wandering round the book display at a convention of the National Council of Teachers of English when a publisher's representative pushed a copy of Being There into my hand, pointed out a man standing alone, and said, "Please go and talk to him." I hastily pulled together a few thoughts and obediently chatted to Jerzy Kosinski, who wrote "For Malcolm, in appreciation of his interest," As a white male, I hesitated to approach Marlene Nourbese Philip, then was rewarded with a welcome and a dashing extravert signature that fills the page. Steven Berkoff, the British playwright and actor, spoke - about himself - from the stage of the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, then walked out by a side door. Having spent $4 on a Berkoff book, I dashed through a no-admittance door, climbed stairs to a long corridor, and finally found him relaxed in a room with a court of disciples.

Most writers appear a touch embarrassed and want to write as little as possible, quickly, even surreptitiously. "Best wishes," perhaps; now and then the place and date (Burgess wrote "Bloomsday" although it was the day before). Occasionally, "What's your name?" or "Shall I dedicate it to someone?"

Michael Ondaatje writes an M followed by a straight line, then an O followed by a straight line, a near-cheat. The tiniest signature I have - which might reveal something - is by Anita Desai. Anne Cameron does a smiling female symbol with "Anne" beside it. Instead of "Best wishes," Rudy Wiebe, pleasingly, writes "Peace." Peter Mayle, who devotes most of his A Year in Provence to the pleasures of food, puts "Bon appetit." Alasdair Gray, the experimental Glaswegian writer, adds a caricature of the reader.

Al Purdy signed observing, in his best curmudgeon manner, that this was halving the value of the book -but he is reputedly a great collector of signed texts himself. W. P. Kinsella, however, looked at my hardback of Shoeless Joe, with tidy dust-jacket (the sticker, "The Bay, $2.99," still on it) and told me that it was worth at least $ 110, so look after it.

When the authors choose to add a few more words, what do they write? And what do they reveal about themselves, or me?

Hugh Hood heard my wife remark that autograph-collecting was crass, and inscribed my book with "whose wife has such good taste." Austin Clarke wrote "For Malcolm, whose criticism is most essential" - do I detect irony? I met Mongo Beti from Cameroon at an African literature conference at Claremont in California. He spoke no English, so we conversed in halting French. His autograph on my Mission to Kala is accompanied by "avec toutes mes sympathies," for the limitations of my French, I suppose.

Albert Wendt, the Samoan novelist, inscribed my copy of Sons for the Return Home with "la manuia!" and Witi Ihimaera, the Maori novelist, wrote "Ki taku hoa." Both comments, I hope, are complimentary. Barry Callaghan scrawled in The Black Queen Stories, rather oddly, "For Malcolm, these stories about the orphans of my home town." Earle Birney engagingly autographs Turvey as "T. L. (Topsy) Turvey," upside down.

I spotted Colin Dexter sitting alone in a new mystery bookstore in Charing Cross Road in London, so went in to tell him that my friends discussed Inspector Morse on PBS TV seriously, in contrast to Miss Marple and the rest. Dexter signed my book with "Bless you for your support," though he surely has sufficient. Erika Ritter wrote in Automatic Pilot, "Thank you for giving me academic respectability." I chatted to Gwen Pharis Ringwood about the possibilities of one-act plays, and her inscription was "To Malcolm, to the short form we both like so much."

Most creative of all the messages in my collection may be the longest, by Robert Hunter, the talent that blossomed in the late '60s with The Storming of the Mind and Erebus: "May all your troubles be psychological, metaphysical, financial, emotional, socio-economic - but not REAL."

Once I was truly taken aback. James Reaney made a unique response. He pulled out a Victorian birthday-book and asked me to put my name on the appropriate page!


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