On a subject that I believe would be of interest to book-lovers in general in addition to Shepherd fans, I wrote the following article (with illustrations) and submitted it to a high-class magazine devoted to book-collecting. The editor’s response was that he liked it but wanted it to be rather more filled-out with what I felt was uninteresting, difficult-to-ferret-out, pedantic material I had no interest in putting in the required, self-induced and boring grunge work, to accomplish. I much prefer ideas to minutia. Here, with very minor adjustments, is what I believe will be of interest. There are a few details some may remember previously encountering in my work or that by others. But I feel that gathering all of this together, it forms a whole more valuable than the sum of its scattered parts.
STRANGE BUT TRUE ADVENTURES IN THE WORLD
OF A SHEPHERD BIBLIPHILE
I love books and I collect them and a few associated ephemera. Although I have thousands of books, my special gatherings run to a couple of what I call “poor man’s” collections—over the years I’ve bought what my limited budget permitted. I have almost all of Hemingway in first editions, but not all in pristine condition, and a couple of his earliest ones only in facsimile. The facsimiles themselves have risen in rarity and price, gaining admittance among the “collectables.” Although none are signed, when I had more than a bit of loose change, for use as a bookmark for reading his books, I purchased a wine card from a transatlantic liner, which he signed for the booze that he bought one afternoon. I have all of Norman Mailer first editions, many of them signed, most of them in pristine condition. Yet my special treasure is the first edition of his The Naked and the Dead with its rather worn and torn dust jacket, which he signed for me in person. I gather that this jacket is made of rather fragile stuff, so a poor man’s collection is not likely to have a pristine example. His signed letter to me regarding one of my unpublished manuscripts is framed on a wall over my desk. I have most of E. E. Cummings in firsts, but none signed. I make do with a signed postcard written by Cummings to New York’s 8th Street Bookshop. Like the Hemingway wine card, I also use it as a bookmark. So I possess, on a couple of crowded shelves, some ephemeral associations to some of the literature I love.
Cummings wrote poems in lower case,
but signed with initial caps.
In recent years my focus has altered to an area that is more unusual in its bibliographic focus. The subject is the American humorist, active in the second half of the twentieth century, Jean Shepherd. The area is much less well-known, though I find it fascinating, maybe in large part because I wrote the only book about him. In addition to many overflowing file boxes of background information, notes, and audio tapes and CDs of his radio broadcasts, I’ve accumulated the small group of first editions of all the books by this great American creative force, who was a humorist, author, film-maker, and creator of several television series. A major talk-radio innovator, broadcaster of thousands of shows over the decades, and creator of the holiday favorite movie, A Christmas Story, Shepherd talked about everything one can think of, for years improvising 45-minutes a night. Originally he had not wanted to write down his improvised stories because, I believe, as a raconteur he felt that the spoken word was the prime medium not only of humankind in general, but of himself in particular. Besides, he invented his spoken stories without a script and probably liked the idea of keeping them that way.
However, his wife at the time, actress Lois Nettleton, said that she and others urged him to write down some of his stories, and Shel Silverstein, his best friend, cartoonist, and children’s book author, with connections to Playboy, helped convince him to write them down and submit them to the magazine. From the mid-1960s through 1981, Playboy printed nearly two dozen of them, most of them fictions about his Indiana childhood, a couple of them fictions about his life in the Signal Corps during World War II. Many of these stories, and many of his articles on varied subjects published in varied magazines, were gathered into books such as In God We Trust—All Others Pay Cash. (He had a proclivity for making up odd titles for most of his stories and books.) The stories upon which the movie A Christmas Story is based came from these books.
Sometimes Shepherd discussed his love of books during his radio broadcasts. He was obsessed with reading—on one program he commented that if he couldn’t find other material to occupy him, he’d read the copy on Wheaties boxes, and, he said that if even more desperate, he would remove his shoe and read the words impressed in rubber on the bottom of his heel. He said that as an adolescent, he was first inspired to read after having borrowed from the library Thomas Wolf’s Look Homeward, Angel, finding it not totally understandable, yet supremely inspiring. It led to his lifelong love of reading and writing, and, undoubtedly, influenced his decision to publish his spoken stories in print. Apparently for the prestige value, he referred to his first book of gathered, strung-together stories, as a “novel.”
END OF PART 1