WHAT MAKES A BOOK STICK AROUND?
Authors who have been writing for a long time sometimes say, “Things were different back then.”
I always ask,"What was different?"
And the answer usually comes back: "The book business. The publishing industry. The way things were done."
Yesterday I received a book in the mail that was very special to me. It was edited by me nearly thirty years ago. But before that, it was discovered, so to say, in an abandoned building after Hurricane Andrew struck SW Florida in 1991. The book was a waterlogged copy of the original English edition of The Kebra Nagast.
One glance at the ruined volume told me that it was a find. A glorious and fantastic find. It was, first and foremost, a photocopy of Wallis Budge’s classic translation of the sacred book of Ethiopia, The Kebra Nagast, which means“The Glory of the Kings.”
What I held in my hands was an Ethiopic, early version of the Christian Bible, prior to the redacted passages, rewritten and bowdlerized, by the mindless minions of King James.
As I turned the hurricane furled pages, I saw something else. Almost as if a holy light was shining down on the poor battered book, there were calligraphed, marginal notes on each page. These, it became clear, were written by a mysterious Rastafarian named Sheldon. Obviously, he was also a scholar and his insights on each page were illuminating.
The book that came out of this sacred work was mostly edited by myself, and finally, years later, published by St Martin’s Press/Macmillan.
There were a number of Rastafarian elders and younger initiates who helped with the work including some members of the Marley family, especially Ziggy Marley who kindly wrote the introduction.
Yesterday, a new edition of this book showed up. The first paperback printing. Along with the proud feeling I had looking at the fresh, pristine volume, I also had a persistent question.
I asked myself, What makes a book survive for such a long time?
Was it the sacred nature of The Kebra Nagast that gave it such longevity? Yet there are myriads of scholarly works that have not fared so well; books that are locked away in archival vaults and have not seen the light of day for centuries. What got this one into the light of day? One day of terrible catastrophic darkness -- a hurricane?
I thought of The Alchemist by Paul Coelho. That book took a long time to catch on and then, almost mystically, it took off and has now sold more than 250 million copies. By and large, it too is a sacred volume, offering a helping hand to humanity. A visionary book for sure.
Another wisdom work of great value is T.E. Lawrence's The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Thanks to publisher, Warren Lapine of Wilder Publications, it's back in print. A whole new generation may read it and get the same thrill I discovered when I was a college student. Among other things, Lawrence told the story of the Middle East, the wars and weathers of the vast desert he inhabited as a British soldier during World War I. He, of course, became the man he didn't wish to be: Lawrence of Arabia.
In 1975 I wrote a kind of oral narrative of the Navajo with the help of my long time friend, Jay Joogii DeGroat. Forty-five years later, the original book that I called Sitting on the Blue-Eyed Bear is still with us even though it has morphed into a number of other books. It gave birth to at least five other books, all of them celebrating Navajo mythology. From one I got five. How did this happen?
My conclusion is that, aside from pure luck, books survive because someone, somewhere, wants them. There is a need. And somehow that need is fulfilled at a particular time when it sheds light on a particular event or period of time.
An author friend of mine, David Kherdian, said to me,“Books only go out to come back in.”
We are living in a time when books go out and come in in such rapid order that we almost can't see them appearing or disappearing. A writer I know said, "You never know. You might write a whole book and what survives, years later, is a single memorable line."
In that case I am profoundly fortunate. The second incarnation of The Blue-Eyed Bear contained this quotable line:“We humans fear the beast within the wolf because we do not understand the beast within ourselves.”
I wouldn't mind seeing that on my gravestone.
And may that line go far and wide to educate the likes of presidents, poets, pirates, parrots, paupers, and pretenders so that we can each embrace all that is holy within and without for-I-ver and I-ver, as Sheldon once said in the margins of The Kebra Nagast.
We may never figure out exactly what makes a book stick around. But we can surely surmise why a single line outlasts another. It refuses to go away. What is sacred is not scared or scarred. It is something that shines. That stays as Sheldon said it should.