An authorial moment

This has never happened to me before (sadly), so I thought it was worth recording. And anyway, I’m a suffering author right now, so please indulge me.FP2P I cover

She was sitting 3 rows in front of me on the bus from Oxford down to London. Dangly earrings. Cool leather jacket. Handbag probably fashionable (I wouldn’t know). She opens it and takes out a copy of my book – pristine, red first edition of From Poverty to Power. OMG.

What do I do, shout ‘hey that’s my book’? Bus too crowded, and anyway too sad/creepy, so I watch what she does next (also quite creepy, I guess). And then I remember twitter – this is what it was made for:

‘Woman on bus takes out pristine copy of From Pov 2 Power. V excited. But then plays w phone n stares into space instead of opening it. Agony’


‘Oh shxt. What if she follows me on twitter? #stalker #shameup


‘She opens it. Back of head supremely bored. Plays w hair, earring. 5m on same page then checks phone. This is hell. Still 30m to my stop.’

bruce-eric-kaplan-there-s-an-informal-q-and-a-and-then-afterward-the-author-s-sad-flir-new-yorker-cartoonAnd the stuff that doesn’t fit into 140 characters? The way the back of her head radiated boredom, the idle flipping through the pages. The gulf between her stake in all this and mine – will she get into it, absorb/argue/dispute? Or fling it casually on a pile of unread books, a passing fad – ‘do you remember that time when I bought all those awful politics books and couldn’t finish any of them? Ha!’

She gets off at Baker St – I feel relief mixed with loss. Now I’ll never know her name or why she had my book. But judging by her reaction so far, that’s probably just as well.

Actually, there has been one comparable moment. Many years ago, in the LSE library, I saw a student slumped across a book I had edited. He was fast asleep. Worrying pattern emerging here.

Any similar tales out there?

Update: thanks for the comments – chortling happily over them

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26 Responses to “An authorial moment”
  1. Kate Raworth

    Once I took my mum to a car boot sale and we came across a stall where a man was selling a copy of her book on flower arranging. What to say?
    “Hey! I wrote that book! Would you like me to sign it?”
    “Yeah, I might get an extra 20p”.

  2. Elisabeth Jackson

    Don’t despair Duncan! I’m sure she wouldn’t have appreciated your insightful deconstruction of the complex interplay of power and poverty in contemporary development anyway!

  3. John Gaventa

    Duncan, if it is any consolation. I once was invited to receive ‘the Governor’s Book Award’ in an unnamed state in the US for my book on Power and Powerlessness. It carried with it a monetary award, which given my state of finances at the time would have been very welcome. However, i was met by a spokesman at the door with the message: ‘Very unusually the Governor asked to see the book. We are sorry to inform you that he has decided that there is no money for the Prize in the budget this year.’

  4. Heather Marquette

    I once read, ‘Marquette writes in her typically forthright manner….’. Wasn’t sure whether or not to hang it up on the wall as a badge of honour or as a dart board!

  5. Pete

    Definitely should have introduced yourself – most people don’t get to meet authors. It would have made her bus journey and given her something to tweet about.

    While chatting you could have introduced her to your blog. “Here’s something you might like to read ‘Let’s Talk About Sex: why sexual satisfaction & pleasure should….’ err… time to go back to my seat”

  6. Ben Ramalingam

    Was shopping for present in Waterstones in Moorgate a few weeks ago and saw someone get Aid on the Edge of Chaos down from shelf, spend an inordinate amount of time looking through it, and then put it down on a stack of Pikettys and walk away, muttering to himself. Glumly re-shelving my own book – that was a (low) peak moment.

  7. Steve Lewis

    Oh well Duncan at least you made a lot of us laugh.

    I was on a flight to Belfast last year for the G8. I opened the Guardian weekend magazine and found a large photo of myself. Only time it has ever happened. I squealed, surprising the stranger next to me. I showed her the photo. Unfortunately it showed me looking quite mad, with my face covered in sellotape. So she studiously ignored me the rest of the flight!

  8. Mark Wentling

    Thanks for the laugh, Duncan. Anytime I see anyone reading a book from my Africa Trilogy, I turn the other the way and try to get some distance between us. If I had been in your position, I would have got off the bus at the next stop.

  9. Gerry Helleiner

    Funny. My experience was worse.
    Many years ago, after a publisher representative visiting my university office, among scores of others, finished telling me of all the books I might want to assign for student purchase, without mentioning mine, I prompted him a little about my book on Nigeria (my first) and several other country studies, done under the auspices of the Yale Growth Centre. “Oh no”, he said, “You wouldn’t be interested in those Growth Centre books. They are sure losers. No one is going to buy them”. As it turned out, he wasn`t far off. But it sure was a sobering occasion for a young academic.

  10. Steve Price-Thomas

    My brother Peter was on a train and saw the person opposite him was reading ‘The People’s Lawyer’ , written by a good friend of ours, Philip Ells. In the book Philip recounts his experiences of two years living in Tuvalu. For what it is worth, I have a walk on part in the book.
    Amazed to see anyone reading it, Peter asked, ‘How do you know Philip?’
    ‘Philip who?’ asked the passenger.
    ‘Philip Ells’, said Peter. ‘The author of your book’.
    ‘I don’t know him. I bought the book at Victoria Station’, said the passenger, by now edging away from my brother.
    ‘I must tell Philip,’ said Peter. ‘You are probably the first person who is not one of his friends and relations to read the book, let alone buy it’.

  11. Nicholas Colloff

    I can only offer lecture stories. I once gave what I thought was a fabulous talk on Meister Eckhart to a large audience in Chicago and have a Dominican nun come up to me afterwards and declare,” I did nt understand a word of tnat but I just loved your accent” rather like being told one’s book is printed on good paper!

  12. Augusta Dwyer

    I think you may be projecting — just a bit. That person you saw may have been tired and/or distracted, being on a bus. Maybe she had something else on her mind just at that moment. Maybe she took a better look at it once home and became engaged by the content, and maybe only some of the content was particularly relevant to her. I mean the good thing is that she bought the book.

  13. Graham

    Thanks, Duncan, for a lovely piece. I’m going to steal your “The way the back of her head radiated boredom” line – hope that’s OK!
    I wish I knew you well enough to claim that whenever I see somebody reading From Poverty to Power I go up to them and say, “I’m Duncan, and I wrote that book”, and then act in odd and eccentric ways.
    But I don’t, so I won’t.

  14. Anon (but not the woman on the bus)

    I knew it must have been you (or at least some other Oxfam type) as soon as I took the book out of my handbag on the bus. That awful coughing noise you made, as if the wind had been taken out of you – that was the give-away. You were clearly trying to attract my attention which might have been OK if you hadn’t followed it up with that childish waving, flapping your arms about and muffled squeals – it was really quite disconcerting. I tried to ignore you but I could feel your eyes burning the back of my head. Very off-putting.

    I resolved not to encourage you further so that you wouldn’t embarrass yourself. I did try to read some of the pages of the book too (honest I did) – but it was all a bit turgid for me darling. You see I’d just come back from a bit of shopping in Oxford and had had a few glasses of vino at lunchtime, so I had hoped that the book might help me to drop-off in the bus. I read a few lines but the words kept swirling around on the page in front of me. By the way, what exactly is a multi-stakeholder approach to randomised sample surveying?

    Next time I think I’ll just stick to a nice paperback novel or something. You never know I might meet Jeffrey Archer on the bus one day!
    Woman on the bus
    P.S. Stay back next time or I’ll let you have the pepper-spray
    P.P.S. The handbag is Prada, darling. P R A D A!!!!

  15. Alexandra Pura

    Hey Duncan, in a high school in Manila, your book is a textbook for Grade 11. They have a “From Poverty to Power” block. Apparently, the New Zealand chapter of the school also has it as a block. There you go! 🙂

  16. Tomas Bridle

    I once had a car stolen in LA. Retrieved the shell from a junkyard about a month later. Everything was gone: seats, gear shift knob, dirty gym clothes, 8-track punk cassettes I’d been collecting from thrift stores… but a copy of the screenplay I had just sold was taken out of the trunk and pages scattered through the front of the car. Which was probably an omen: option was soon dropped effectively ending my short career in Hollywood.

  17. Tess Newton Cain

    This is hilarious, can’t believe I’ve only just read this. I just got back from Fiji where I was told by a Fijian lawyer (1) ‘You didn’t teach me but I’ve heard about you. You’re a legend’ (probably code for ‘my friends tell me you were a dragon’) and ‘Well Dr Newton Cain you have given me lots to read and think about over the years’ (almost certainly code for ‘my God you are so old, how are you breathing unaided?’).

    If it’s any consolation, I was told (by at least 2 people so it must be true) earlier in the year that you are the 3rd most influential development blogger ‘IN THE WORLD’ which of course begs the question as to who are 1 & 2 – my money is on me & Owen Barder, in that order 😉

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