Lives of the Gheorghenis: Second Prolegomenon: Why Read and Write?

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Second Prolegomenon: Why Read and Write?

An 18th-century man happily carrying a huge stack of books while the man he was planning to visit crouches behind a cart hoping he won't be seen.
Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

Ecclesiastes 12:12

As this statement was made somewhere between the 5th and 2nd centuries BCE, we can reasonably assume that authors have been glutting their reading market for going on three millennia now.

The 21st Century and the advent of 'on-time' book printing, as well as the Kindle phenomenon, have led to a resurgence of self-publishing. You heard me, resurgence – although the 'if it happened before I was born I'm not interested' crowd think they invented it. Actually, as the nerds say (feel free to groan at this point), the first books were all self-published.

What? You thought the publishing industry came first? And then looked around for 'content providers'? Boy, are you mired in this end of history.

And they asked Baruch, saying, Tell us now, How didst thou write all these words at his mouth?

Then Baruch answered them, He pronounced all these words unto me with his mouth, and I wrote them with ink in the book.

Jeremiah 36:17-18

Kind of low-tech, but it worked. Well, sort of. If you read the rest of the chapter you'll find out that the king threw the book into the fire – he had a lot in common with certain school boards these days. Baruch the scribe [=web designer/host] and Jeremiah [=content provider] complained to their information source, aka God, about doing all this work for nothing. To which God replied, 'What? You didn't back up your data?'

I'm kidding. He said, 'Take thee again another roll, and write in it all the former words that were in the first roll, which Jehoiakim the king of Judah hath burned.' At which point I'll bet Baruch would have given a lot for a portable hard drive.

Much later in the book (it's a blockbuster and you really should read it, even though there are no fairies or Vikings in it), Jeremiah dictates another book that predicts the future downfall of the city of Babylon. Since Jeremiah's not going to Babylon, but a lot of his former neighbours are, Jeremiah gives the book to one of them, a fellow by the name of Seraiah, to take along for a little light reading. Seraiah's instructions were to read the book aloud by the river Euphrates, and then to sink the book in the river.

See? Books have magic beyond their Amazon statistics.

Romans – okay, rich Roman men with big careers behind them and too much time on their hands, plus literate slaves – used to write their memoirs, have them copied, and foist copies on their contemporaries, at least the ones who didn't manage to hide from them. I'm pretty sure there's a bit about it in I, Claudius. Can you imagine trying to dodge old Gaius Bombasticus while crossing the Forum? Oh, Jupiter, here he comes again. He's going to ask me what I thought about his description of the Third Punic War. . . can I fake a gall bladder attack? No, I did that last time.

Any veteran of the blog craze of the early 2000s knows the feeling. Also current victims of the 'listen to my podcast' crowd. Most podcasts are far too long, in my opinion, and suffer under the podcasters' inability to master basic broadcasting skills, such as avoiding dead air and not hemming and hawing. There's also far too much babble of the 'oh, the humanity!' variety for my taste. Waiting for them to get to the point seems to take years of my life I won't get back. Pacing, people, is an art: learn it.

In the woefully-misnamed Middle Ages, self-publishing was all the rage. It was still an expensive undertaking, too. Books were labour-intensive and costly – particularly for the livestock. Whole herds of cows and sheep died for those manuscripts, and even if the monks worked for turnips, raising all those sources of raw material on the hoof required land, grass, and oversight. And what did you get? Yet another copy of the Physiologus, a zoological treatise which had more misinformation in it than the average Fox Newscast. Garbage In Garbage Out is not a modern phenomenon.

The invention of printing didn't improve things much. Sure, the technology was peachy-keen and urban. Moveable type, wow. But the printers had to be paid. They started out with Bibles, guaranteed market there. And nobody could complain about Bibles, right?

Ask William Tyndale. Oh, right: you can't. He was burnt at the stake. For, er, Bible smuggling. Think about him the next time you roll your eyes at that volume in your hotel room drawer.

Governments tended to be alarmed by this new book production craze. Sound familiar? One way of dealing with it was to hold the printers responsible for content. Printers could be jailed. Some had their hands burnt or cut off. This made them a bit more cautious about what they printed. Nobody tell the censorship advocates, please: we don't want to give them ideas.

Even in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, self-publishing was definitely a thing. Tristram Shandy was self-published. Can you imagine a publisher looking at that manuscript and deciding, 'Oh, yeah. The world is really ready for the first early-modern postmodern novel'? The book was a success, though.

William Blake self-published: his stuff is now treasured in museum collections. He was merely following the example of his hero, John Milton. Paradise Lost? Yep, self-published. As were Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Whitman's Leaves of Grass (it would have to have been), Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Proust's Swann's Way. Well, of course Proust self-published: any self-respecting publisher would have run, not walked, in the opposite direction when confronted with that madeleine. Even a French publisher.

The difference in self-publishing these days is how technically easy it is. You want to write a book? Open your Word program. Young'uns, you have no idea what a breakthrough the Word program is. Here, at the tap of a computer key, is a nice, clean virtual page. You need not have the death of innocent sheep on your conscience. You need only to move the cat, who is unevolved and still thinks of himself as a paperweight.

You want to erase? Backspace. You think, 'That paragraph goes up here,' and the wish is author to the deed thanks to cut+paste. Oh, how we love Word – even as we privately curse the programmers for yet again hiding the smart-quotes option in the latest update. Never mind: somebody on the internet will tell us where to find it.

Self-publishing is nearly as easy these days. Find a publisher. Edit your work. Upload it to the parser thingy. Throw in some cover art. Unlike Twain, Blake, or Proust, you don't even have to lay out cash up front: nobody gets charged anything until a customer asks for the book. Then and only then is it printed, mailed, and invoiced. Untouched by human hands, it arrives on someone's doorstep – or, unprinted, free of paper, still in virtual form, on someone's device. Perhaps a tablet, named in delicious homage to that earlier content-delivery system of ancient Sumeria. Ah, bliss.

Of course, there remains the final step. The book is there, begging to be read. Will the customer find the time? Will they cast their eyes over the letters and words and sentences and paragraphs, taking in the wit, the wisdom, the sheer thoughtiness of the author? Will they, in short, do the work that completes the transaction?

Even more importantly (to the author) will they post a review? At any given time of night or day, at screens around this spinning globe, thousands of writers hover anxiously over their Amazon pages and Goodreads entries in the desperate hope – alas, so often vain! – that someone, somewhere, will have read and enjoyed their effort. . . and been willing to say so in public.

For that, children, is why people write and publish. They want to communicate. They may not admit this, even to themselves. They may not be sure exactly what they want to say. (All too often, it's fairly clear to the unbiased observer that they're not too sure how to say it, either.) Still they struggle on, doing their research, formulating their theses or spinning out their yarns, all for the sake of the possibility that somewhere on this planet, amongst the billions of other humans, there may be one or dare they hope, two? other humans who respond to their thoughts. Who feel as they do. Who read the tale and say, hey, yeah, I get it, that's cool.

Traditionally published authors – the ones who get paid – may, or may not, care what other people think about what they wrote. At least, as long as it doesn't affect sales. Sure, some are vain and crave validation in the form of fan letters and awards. Others are not, and happily cash the checks. It is hard to believe that James Malcolm Rymer was proud of Varney the Vampire. There's a legend that says he later paid people to buy copies up to get the thing out of bookstores. I wouldn't blame him. He seems to have been content as a hotel keeper.

The self-published are not so, but are like voyagers in search of riches. Not riches of the bank account, but riches of the heart. They yearn to participate in that most basic of human activities, the weaving of the fabric of thought. That fabric is made up of our dreams and dreads, our aspirations and terrors, our treasured memories and our traumas collective and individual. All of us contribute to it, but to do so, we must tell someone else what we have seen and heard and learned.

That is why we talk to each other. Every statement beyond 'pass the salt, please' is a declaration of our attempt to write the group narrative – the record of our species. The human is a storyteller – and sometimes we want to tell a story so badly that we'll even pay for the privilege.

That, children, is why we self-publish. And that is why readers are rarer than writers. To read is to want to know what everyone else thinks. And that requires a certain sense of perspective.

If you read this, know that you are appreciated. You are doing a good deed. May the universe reward you.

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