Of all the books I have, only one of them has an autograph in it: the Modern Library edition of Selected Short Stories of Eudora Welty.
Eudora Welty, who died earlier this week, lived in Jackson, Miss., in the house where she grew up. Her name is on some of the finest writing produced in the last century: the scariest story ever set in a beauty shop, “Petrified Man”; the haunting “No Place for You, My Love,” about a couple’s drive in the countryside away from New Orleans and what they realize about themselves on the way; her novels, such as Delta Wedding and The Optimist’s Daughterbooks that manage to be both extraordinarily wise and really funny.
I happened to get my book signed when I was in college and saw Welty at a reading. I brought my copy of her short story book to the reading and decided afterward to ask her to sign it. I had never done anything like this beforeI’ve never done it since, for that matterand to my annoyance there was a line of people with the same idea.
A spontaneous book-signing developed, with Welty sitting at a table in the middle of the stage where she had been reading. The spotlights were kept on, and she sat bathed in light, her white hair forming a halo around her head. The line snaked down the stairs at the side of the stage and into what would have been the orchestra pit, had there been an orchestra.
As I wound to the front, I thought about what I could say to her. I rejected “I’m a big fan of yours” as too trite. “What was your inspiration for your story ‘Powerhouse’?” would have required her to give too long an explanation. Even at that age, I knew enough not to ask the sort of irrelevant process-of-writing question that writers often are asked, such as “Do you write with a pencil or a pen, and if with a pen, what color ink?”
The line kept moving, and I kept thinking, but no comment or question seemed right, so I reached the head of the line with no clear plan in mind about what to say. It will come as no surprise that what I came up with spontaneously was straight out of the Dork Manual: “I enjoy opening the windows at night and reading your stories,” I informed the startled Pulitzer Prize winner.
“I’m glad my stories give you pleasure,” she said, her voice sweet with grace and Mississippi, her eyes a clear blue, her white hair luminescent.
Here is what she wrote in the book: “For Wayne Wood with good wishes, Eudora Welty.”
I cannot tell you how much I love those two prepositional phrases. “With good wishes”she had just met me, so how could she offer trite “best wishes”? Welty took care with her use of language even when writing six words in a book for a gushing fan.
It is widely known and appreciated that there is something magical about a computer and what it can do. It is not widely enough appreciated that there is something magical about a book. I sometimes read predictions from people who are convinced that books are going to be replaced by CD-ROMs and computers. Maybe it’s natural to think that a new technology is automatically going to replace an earlier one. A lot of people thought television would replace radio.
This fixation on what is newest can obscure the important question: What is best?
Of course, since the printed page is old hat and the Web is today’s hot vision of tomorrow, it’s easy to forget that print still does a lot of things much better than we can reasonably expect computers ever to do.
But the important thing to remember is that, in whatever medium, content matters. I once wrote that Ray Charles on a scratchy 78 is better than 90 percent of everything that will ever come out on CD. And Eudora Welty would be a great writer if every one of her books vanished tomorrow and her work was only available on a flickering computer screen.
Words carry the power that allows us to reach each other, which is the most awesome power in the world. Words matter.
Like the words, in that small, delicate handwriting: “For Wayne Wood, with good wishes.”
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