Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Just as I thought

Some years ago I picked up a drab-looking old book in a second-hand bookstore. I think I bought it for several reasons. It was about China, which captured my imagination because of my time in Korea. It was published in 1939, which was about the time my grandfather's only book was also published. And it was priced right. I don't remember now, but I'm sure it had to be a dollar or less.

Lin Yutang's Moment in Peking was one of the most enjoyable and memorable books I have ever read. It is an 800-page tome with all the sweep and flow of any good epic, painting a vivid image of pre-revolutionary China so memorable that when I saw The Joy Luck Club a few years ago, parts of it almost looked like a re-run in my mind. I still have it, and inside the cover is an old NY Times page from 1972 with a photo of Lin Yutang and a feature about his just released 1800-page Chinese-English dictionary, the first to be published since the previous standard, a 1931 product of a Western missionary, R.H. Mathews. According to the Times article, the book was being printed in Japan, but US distribution was to be McGraw-Hill the following year.

Somewhere in my mind I have always wondered whether the book business has changed in recent years or I was just getting old. We all know that retelling the past is an old person's way of staying alive. Old family stories are the fabric of conversation where I work, where the median age is 84, and my mother's little stories have to be heard again and again as she doesn't remember - sometimes for even a couple of hours - that we already heard the story that she tells us again. (We listen respectfully, of course, as though she were telling it for the first time in a long time. Anything less would border on abuse.)

Well happy news! The book business has changed in recent years. And not for the better. Here is the reassuring, contemporary evidence:

You would think that American book-publishing, given a chance to innovate, and working with an author who has tens of millions of readers around the world, would jump at the chance to publish this in some form or another. And you would be dead wrong.
You'd be wrong because you fail to comprehend just how deep into American publishing the creative brain rot goes. When this book was 'offered' to American publishers not one could even begin to imagine how it could be done, and not one could even bring themselves to take a flyer on finding out how it could be done. Every single one of them, as well as an agent or two, passed. Were they right?
Of course not. They were wrong. They were, as most are, utterly unimaginative, uninformed, and stupefied. They were strapped to a profit and loss spreadsheet and with no vision of how to produce such a book. And it is not really hard to do. Believe me because I've done it. It is just that, in truth, the American trade book publishing industry has, over the past few decades, managed to push out the innovators and suck in the factory-workers when it comes to staffing their editorial offices.

Vanderleun at American Digest is reporting on Robert Fulghum's most recent venture in writing. Turns out to be published first in Czech, then in Polish, Hungarian and Slovakian. At this writing there are 50,000 copies in print and the number is growing.

Fulghum is one of those rare individuals that you meet in life that are best described as: "A man who is himself." There's nothing in him that is derivative of others. Besides being a writer, Fulghum is also a painter, a sculptor, a Unitarian minister, a man who knows his whiskey and cigars, and his way around a poker table. He also plays a mean mandocello. For ten years he was in great demand as a speaker, and he still is. But there was a point at which he decided, against all advice to the contrary from the traditional publishing types in his karass, that he was tired of being "Captain Kindergarten," and he just folded up the tent and walked away.

American publishers, eat your heart out.

Blog reader, go learn about this.
Life is too short to be arguing all the time.

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