|Walden Pond. Courtesy of Bekah Richards |
of Snellville, Georgia and sxc.hu.
Thoreau once joked that he owned a library of 900 books; they were all his own and all the same, for Walden had not sold. The pages uncut, they slumbered on the shelf, unread. Perhaps the book was too singular in its wordsmithery (despite kinship to Emerson, who was a much-admired speaker of the time, as well as a writer) and too bent on veering away from the laboring realities of his time. It is hard to picture Henry David Thoreau as a contemporary mid-list writer, vigorously marketing his book and chatting on twitter and facebook, and it's not just because the neck beard would put us off. For Walden whispers to us that book marketing is not an "effort to throw off sleep" and so will end with labor, rather than the "poetic or divine life."
And Walden is certainly right.
I am glad that some book marketers manage to make a living, and that some fine books manage somehow to sell in our age despite the noise of the day. I recognize the need for horn toots to announce books and the need for helping friends bring their books from the invisible world to the visible. I do for my own new books what I can and have no Franzenian pride in scorning encounters on twitter and Facebook (such pride comes easily to the luck-kissed writer of books that a publisher chooses to push as lead books. And I enjoy chatting with writers and readers, so that's luck for me.) No mid-list writer desires to own a library of 900 identical books because a small first run did not sell. Very few resist the publisher's call to market and promote.
But Walden is nevertheless right. Marketing is one of those activities not of the dawn but of labor.
And yet the book Henry David Thoreau didn't market and that readers rejected has become a cornerstone of American literature, while works that could speak only to their time have been flung away, tumbling into the waterfall of oblivion. Thoreau's pure, demanding voice, full of love for the awakened, whole man and woman drifted on into the world. Walden multiplied wildly and fed and awakened many with its light and lovely singularity. How rare and sweet that is! Would that have happened in our over-busy and chaotic world, or would such precious things be lost? The paper and ebook Niagara of published and self-published books roars, deluging us with words of labor and occasional dawn light. Does the singular and the beautiful still find its way through the labyrinth of time, heading toward the center? Can we still distinguish the book of labor from the book of dawn?