Philip Roth once said that people tended to glamourise the process of writing a book. He compared it to building a wall: you put one brick on top of the other, and pretty soon, you have your wall.

Fergus Shanahan has built a few walls in his time, but today he dismantled one. This one was made out of books – a hundred and fifty of them – which he signed.

A signed copy of a book can become valuable – particularly if it’s a first edition. Seamus Heaney reckoned he’d signed so many copies of his books that the ones which were still *unsigned* were worth more than the ones to which he’d added his moniker.

Before Joe McGowan’s book was launched a couple of years back in front of a huge crowd at the RDS (remember those days?), he correctly reasoned that he wouldn’t have time to sign a copy for everyone who wanted one. So he had rubber stamps made, and we put his mark on the books before the punters arrived. (One of my memories of that launch is of Joe being engulfed by a crowd of well-wishers when he left the stage. He was a jockey, after all. We carried on with the rest of the speeches without him, before he eventually emerged from the scrum.) And Margaret Atwood devised a system of remote signing: she used a digital pen in Australia to write her name on a screen and, through the magic of technology, a robotic pen in the UK put her name on a book.

But signing books is a strange business. Why ask someone to scrawl their name on a piece of paper? Aren’t we told from an early age not to deface books by writing on them, or folding back the corners to mark the page? (A particularly heinous crime, this one. What’s wrong with a bookmark?)

After all, it’s already printed on the title page. (There’s a convention of the author crossing out the printed name and signing underneath.) It may have something to do with human touch – of which we have been starved in the past year or so. The author has signed their name to the book, for you, and gives it to you, with their blessing. There is a certain power in this – like the old belief that the monarch could heal by placing hands on the ill (or even, as in the Bible story, that touching the hem of the dignitary’s cloak would do the trick). This tradition still exists in a modern form, through the giving of alms to the poor, as Peter’s pence.

Stained-glass windows in medieval churches performed a similar role. The coloured glass was not there just to look attractive: it was believed that the physical properties of sunlight were changed when it passed through the glass – and that it then had the power to do good to the person on whom the light fell.

Book launches are one of the things we’re particularly good at in Ireland. Unfortunately, they, along with large funerals, weddings and other ceremonial gatherings, are on hold for the time being. When they return, Fergus looks forward to meeting you in person – and signing your book. In the meantime, we’d be delighted to deliver one to your door. We can’t guarantee any miracle cures, but having the author’s book does provide a certain something.


Copies of The Language of Illness, signed or unsigned, are available here:

The Language of Illness