First Edition

by | January 21, 2017 | General | 2 comments

stack of books

By Lisabet Sarai

When did books become so ephemeral?

I have a bookshelf in my apartment full of titles I’ve lugged around for most of my adult life—from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again, and then from America to Asia. Indeed, some of these books (Alice in Wonderland, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, The Complete Plays of Gilbert and Sullivan) have been with me since I was a child. These are books I don’t want to live without. I never know when I’m going to want to re-read one of them.

Many are hard-cover. Some have begun to disintegrate with age. I recently replaced two dilapidated volumes with new editions: Little Big by John Crowley and A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. I found it heartening that both these books, among my life time favorites and first read decades ago, were still in print.

Growing up, books were my closest friends, possessing a special magic. They seemed more real than many of the people around me. It is perhaps strange, given the fact that I started writing as soon as I knew the letters, that I didn’t fantasize about being an author. However, I had a famous author in my extended family. I knew that having penned and published a book was a major achievement.

I remember the thrill of holding the first edition of my first novel. It was a cheap paperback, printed on dingy, low-quality paper. Still, it had my name on the cover, and my words inside. At the age of forty six, I felt that I’d achieved some small measure of immortality.

Now, seventeen years later, sitting in my apartment storage room, I have at least a dozen copies of that book that I can’t get rid of. Living as I do in a conservative Asian country, I can’t just toss them in the trash. I don’t want to send them to readers; I’m only too aware of the weaknesses in that edition, hopefully remedied or at least improved in the most recent release of this title.

I have even more copies of the second edition, and the third. In fact I have author’s copies of dozens of books that nobody wants—including me.

I used to believe that books were forever. Now they’re just clutter, inconvenient and space-consuming.

And that’s print books. What about everything that I’ve written that has been released only in electronic form? Talk about ephemeral! In a couple of decades, as technology and file formats change, it may not even be possible to read those books. (This is assuming that people will still know how to read.)

All the blood and sweat I put into those books, the energy and the love, produced nothing more than a collection of bits, easily erased by a random cosmic ray or an erroneous mouse click. Definitely a bit discouraging.

Books these days are ephemeral in another sense, too. In the days of traditional printing, it was expensive to release new editions. The text of a novel was more or less fixed.

In contrast, when I scroll through the directories on my hard drive, I find multiple versions of almost everything I’ve written. It’s so easy to tweak a tale for a new audience. Sometimes the changes are sufficiently large that it should really be considered a new book.

Which version is the “real” book? When future generations of students study my work (ha!), which file will be take as the authoritative text, from a literary analysis point of view?

Do you know how many e-books are published now, every day? Thousands. One estimate I found said there are 40,000 new ebook titles on Amazon each week.

Even as a reader, I’ve started to treat books as temporary, disposable commodities. Mostly, my DH and I don’t hold on to books anymore, unless they’re among the best things we’ve ever read. We tend to buy in used bookstores, and pass the volumes along when we’re done with them.

Still, there must be some readers out there like me, readers who remember the books that touched them most deeply, who want to make sure they have copies for the future. I recently got a request to reprint a story I wrote ten years ago. A few people, I guess, pay attention to what I’ve written. A few people remember.

Meanwhile, when my husband went to a used bookstore recently looking for new reading material, he found a copy of Raw Silk front and center on the shelves, staring at him. First edition.

I do hope someone buys it—to keep the story alive.

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Donna

    Books are indeed magical and Raw Silk was first published before the big electronic revolution, so you know that many readers held it in their hands and were transported. Plus, erotica is often denigrated, but a good erotic story touches the reader's imagination in a very special way. You may never know how many people you moved–I'm one of them–but in a way that's part of the wonderful mystery of the reader-author connection.

  2. Lisabet Sarai

    Thanks so much for your kind words, Donna.

    I like to imagine some young woman fifty years in the feature, coming upon a dog-eared volume of Raw Silk hidden away in some attic. A revelation…

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