When writers exit stage right after a reading at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center, they may feel satisfaction or relief, elation or the sense of a job well done. Writers being writers, they may feel that they did not deserve the audience’s applause — or that they deserved more of it. What happens next is always the same. I ask them to sign our guest book.
This has been a backstage tradition for decades. Open the first page of the first volume, which dates to 1964, and you’ll find Vladimir Nabokov’s signature and drawing of a butterfly.
On stage, you get an author’s persona. In the guest book, you get his or her personality. Some take up whole pages, others make tiny marks in the corner beside the crease. Often writers will riffle the pages before signing, to see who has come before and what they have said. Or to see what they wrote the last time they visited. The collection of guest books is a chronicle and family album, a rite of passage and reunion.
Our stage is dark, for now, but in my office drawer there is a brand-new volume of the guest book. It is 13 inches tall, 10 inches wide, and bound in burgundy leather. The paper is archive weighted. Its pages are blank and waiting.