Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Mystique of the Book

If ever anyone was destined to write books, I was that person. Or maybe I should say, "It should happen to me."
For years I had the sense not to mention this ambition to my decidedly non-literary family. But, as an avid reader, I could not hide from my unsettled parents that I was, at the least, bookish. I left a trail of books wherever I went, usually histories, biographies, dramas, poetry. (Fiction much less often--history was what I wanted to write, not novels.)
Not everything goes as we have planned it; and it was decades before I was able to publish my first book--"In The Lion's Mouth," a biographical sketch of Holocaust heroine Gisi Fleischmann. I knew by then just what was involved in publishing a "niche" book--that is, a non-blockbuster. The frustration and pain of multiple rejections and what seemed like universal misunderstanding were so sharp that I thought I would never do such a thing again--although I have done it several times since, and yet another memoir is likely to be on my agenda.)
But in the immediate aftermath of "In The Lion's Mouth" I was stunned by the reactions of casual acquaintances.
"I've always thought I'd like to write," they told me. "I've always wanted to do a book."
Close questioning generally revealed that they had never even READ a book--or at least not in years. But they wanted to bequeath one of their own to an eager--well, maybe not so eager--world.
What is the mystique of the book? Maybe it goes back to the Middle Ages, when you could save yourself from hanging if you wore a cleric's habit and could prove you could read and write. In that case, you could be forgiven for any crime. Or maybe it has to do with the powerful things that once were associated with books--everything from spells to laws, but certainly nothing trivial, could be found in them.
You would think it might be dying now. This is an age in which fewer and fewer people read; and if they DO read, a diminishing number of them are reading in traditional formats. Yet the ardor for doing a book--almost certainly a book that will not be read even by one's own nearest and dearest--seems unabated.
Go figure.

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