Today, when I logged on to Amazon.com to look up the statistics on my most recent book, I noticed a new category, “Book or Books You Would Recommend INSTEAD of This Book,” and I longed for a more civil time. I recalled an October afternoon twenty years ago, when I received a pale blue airmail envelope from my British publisher, the firm of John Murray, Ltd., at 50 Albemarle Street in London. On a manual typewriter, my editor had written that they were “looking forward vigorously to my arrival.”
Three weeks later, jet-lagged and excited, I timidly approached the small, white cake of a building in London for the British publication of my slim novel. Murray had never been a firm for lightweights, having published the work of Lord Byron, Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, Washington Irving, and Charles Darwin, so I knew I was remarkably lucky.
I was met by Jock Murray, an elderly man with bushy white eyebrows, whose great-great-great grandfather had founded the firm in 1768. He straightened his bow tie and took my hand.
I was ushered into a hallway lined with shelves that held books and artifacts from another world: All the first editions from the past three centuries, including the two best-sellers from 1859, Darwin’s Origin of the Species and Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help, as well as fossils and strange bones and exotic feathers authors had brought back from their travels.
As Murray took my coat he said, “Would you like to see some treasures?”
I had barely nodded before he walked off with my coat in one hand and waved his other for me to follow. I hurried after him and found myself in the drawing room of one of the most brilliant literary circles in English history. On the wall were paintings of all the great writers as well as one of Byron’s mother, in all her plump glory.
On the table was a cracked leather box. Murray pulled me by the right hand and opened the box with his left. Out fluttered tiny pieces of folded paper, which contained writing in faded brown ink.
“Lord Byron,” he said.
Each tiny paper package had the names and dates of Byron’s girlfriends: Carolyn Lamb, Teresa Guiccioli, the Maids of Athens. Murray carefully unfolded some of the precious papers to show me curls of chestnut, black, auburn, and blonde hair. Then he took out one folded piece of paper from the corner and read, “Whose this is I do not recollect, but it is of 1812.”
I did not know how to respond, but thankfully Murray then said, “We’ve made some nasty sandwiches for you.” He left me alone in that room for just a moment and returned with a plate of watercress and cucumber sandwiches that did not look nasty at all. As I took one of the delicate sandwiches, I saw the plate had French script printed on it. “Francoise Sagan’s French publishers sent them over when we published Bonjour Tristesse in 1955,” he said.
“You’ve written a slim novel,” he said as I ate the sandwiches, which were just fine. “Ive heard Americans like fat books and thin women, but the English like middle-sized books and fubsy women.”
“Fubsy?” I was able to say, without spitting out food.
“‘Fubsy’ is a Scottish word. When I see those umbrellas that fold down, that’s ‘fubsy.’”
Later on that magical day, Murray showed me Byron’s boots, specially weighted by the cobbler to correct his crooked feet.
And this morning, twenty years later, I logged on to Amazon and typed in Lord Byron under Author. As I waited for his books to appear on the screen I smiled when I realized Amazon would have been a bare-breasted woman for him. When the list of books “by Byron” appeared, I gently scrolled down the page. Next to Amazon sales listing, “None” was written for his works of genius. It did say, “Customers viewing this page may be interested in these sponsored links:
“You can be organized. OrganizeYourselfOnline.com and ReligionDegreeOnline.com, Get a college religion degree online.”
I turned off my computer, stood up, and quietly went to my bookshelf. The sun was shining on a bunch of daffodils on my desk. I reached for The Collected Works of Byron, opened the book, and began to read out loud, “She walks in Beauty, like the night,” and I realized no kind of Amazon could do battle with that.
Patty Dann is the author of The Goldfish Went on Vacation: A Memoir of Loss (and Learning to Tell the Truth About It) and The Baby Boat: A Memoir of Adoption. She has also published two novels, Sweet & Crazy and Mermaids, which has been translated into French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Japanese. It was also made into a movie starring Cher, Winona Ryder, and Christina Ricci.