Backhanded Honor

Last night, while Susie watched in bemusement, I scooted another milk cartonload of my books up to my worktable, opened BookDB2, and went to work cataloging.  (This project is going at the speed of Snoopy’s attempting to read one word per day of War and Peace, but it gives me something to do besides scroll through Facebook endlessly.)

I did hit a milestone last night.  I didn’t note the exact time, but I entered Book #200 at some point in the evening.  I hadn’t really been keeping track, but I did see the counter reach 200.  As usual, I had the Library of Congress’ catalog open in one window and OhioLINK’s in another, searching for call numbers.  (Most hardcover books published in the last 15-20 years include them just inside the title page, but most published before then don’t.  There’s never an always and always an exception, however.)

The book I entered was a paperback novel, This Man and This Woman.  It is significant because it is the only novel written by Jim Bishop.  (He published it in 1963 under the title Honeymoon Diary.)

Bishop was my first literary idol.  Here is his biography, from the St. Bonaventure University’s Jim Bishop Archives.  His claim to fame with me, however, is that his book The Day Lincoln Was Shot was the first “grownup” book that I read from beginning to end.  I checked it out of the Washington School library in Marietta when I was in fourth grade.

The cover of the edition of The Day Lincoln Was
Shot that captured my attention at age 10.

Part of the interest, I think, came from the fact that my parents had the Bantam paperback of his book The Day Kennedy Was Shot, which would be the first of many books on John F. Kennedy’s assassination that I would read over the years.

What intrigued me most was the way Bishop told the story, in both the book about Lincoln and the one about Kennedy.  The Day Lincoln Was Shot begins at 7 a.m. on April 14, 1865, as President Lincoln steps from his bedroom and goes to his office.  It ends just over 24 hours later, when the surgeon general declares him dead.  Each chapter of the book represents one hour of that day, and the titles are “7 a.m.,” “8 a.m.,” etc., along with two chapters of background.

Later that year, I tried my hand at a “The Day” manuscript, describing a day trip Dad and I took to Wheeling (I was 9½ at the time) one Sunday to see his brother and his family.  I came home with a bad case of gastrointestinal flu, diagnosed by a midnight visit to the emergency room once we were back in Marietta.

I went on to read The Day Kennedy Was Shot, as well as The Day Christ Died, both of which were told in the same hour-to-hour format.  The library did own a copy of Honeymoon Diary, and I read it, despite being turned off by the Harlequin Romance-ish title.

Bishop spoke at the annual Chamber of Commerce dinner in Marietta in 1979.  I hurried through delivering The Marietta Times and ran, my clothes still smudged with ink from newspapers, to the Hermann Fine Arts Center on the Marietta College campus, because I read a small item in the paper saying there would be a reception for him.  I managed to get close to him, and shake his hand.

Speaking with him was a delight.  He was pleased that I had read his “The Day” books, and we spoke about another book of his, The Murder Trial of Judge Peel.  He was surprised that I remembered a line from a 1973 column he wrote about the last words of some famous and infamous people.  The line quoted the final words of a criminal just before he died in the electric chair: “Dump my body on the D.A.’s doorstep.”  When he introduced me to his wife Kelly, I quoted his words about her in the dedication of The Day Kennedy Was Shot: “My wife, my assistant, my life.”

And I mentioned that I had read Honeymoon Diary.  His smile evaporated, and he shuddered a little.  “Oh, my God!” he whispered.  He patted my hand, as though offering condolences.  “I’m so sorry.”

How much he hated Honeymoon Diary didn’t register with me until the early 1980s, when I read his autobiography.  He mentions the book only once, describing it as “an ugly, gauche, tasteless work.”

In the end, I suppose I honored him by letting a work of his be the 200th book I entered.  He died in 1987, aged 78, though I still can imagine him thinking, “But why did it have to be that book?”