I was 18 when I picked up a secondhand paperback copy of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s Robert Kennedy and His Times. It was given to me by a professor cleaning out her office -- a spare copy she had from a class about great American biographies. Its slightly cracked spine said it had been read once or twice, but the enamel still shined and the edges of the paper were crisp and came to a point. I stacked it on a pile of other books, and planned to flip through it if I had some spare time later that week.
Cut to two years later. I'm standing in my friend's office, writing him a note to ask a huge favor. He was going to a panel that Schlesinger was moderating at the Smithsonian, and I was unable to get a ticket. The note said something close to, but not nearly as concise as, "Can you tell Schlesinger that I love this book and it would mean the world to me if he signed it?" My friend was out, so I left the note and the paperback on the corner of his desk, and walked toward the door.
But for some reason, I turned back. I realized how the book had become a tattered mess of falling out pages. Faded, dog-eared, and stained, with the back broken and the front cover completely removed, my once shiny paperback looked sad. I crumpled up the note and picked up my book, slightly embarrassed that I had almost asked for such a ridiculous favor. To me, that battered book looked like a prized possession; to most others, it would look like junk.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., changed my life with his writing. Robert Kennedy and His Times and his 1967 essay 'The New Liberal Coalition' changed the way I look at compassion in politics and history. They really did.
I'll never get to tell him that, but it's OK, because I don't need to. No, I'll let that embarrassingly dilapidated copy of my favorite book do the talking. If that's not the most personal sign of appreciation one can show to a historian and author, I don't know what is.