34 Years

One of the top ten greatest books I have read in my life is How to Survive in Your Native Land by James Herndon.

I had never heard of this book until I found a first-edition copy priced for $1 on the clearance rack at Duttenhofer’s used book store in Cincinnati.

Apparently, few people see what I have seen in this book. It is still in print, but not in a mass-market version. That clearance rack at Duttenhofer’s seemed like it might have been the last stop before the recycling bin. As far as I can tell, no one has ever made an e-book version.

But the book touched me. The story of Mr. Herndon’s efforts to liberate and lift up the public school class he taught, and his candid account of what he learned about his failures and success, continues to inspire me with a clear and accessible picture of what real possibility looks like, what real hope looks like, and what freedom looks like—the freedom to create and the freedom to be.

That is success for a book. This book found its target. It found someone (me) whose experience of life and understanding of life were improved by what it has to say. I wish for the books I write to have that kind of success.

And that wish puts a crazy spin on otherwise banal business considerations such as marketing and distribution.

Mr. Herndon’s book came out in 1971. I found my own copy in (I think) 2005. That is a difference of 34 years. To increase the chance for books I write to have something like this kind of success—that is, moving people who will be moved to try to move other people in turn—I will need to keep finding and writing the books that are on my heart to write. More, I will need to keep getting them out there, and not allow my plans to be entirely informed by whatever response I see in the short term.

Some copies of these books will be read and appreciated in the short term (I hope). But other copies are destined to travel a long, slow arc, so that whatever value exists outside of today’s context can be discovered and used. Those copies will wait on this shelf or that shelf, or in this pile or that pile, just as my copy of the Herndon book must have done during those 34 years.

That is, some copies of my books—if those books are any good—are time capsules. They will wait, each copy hopefully to be discovered by the future reader who can be uplifted by it, perhaps when that reader does the equivalent of pulling the book from the clearance rack and taking a small chance by paying a dollar.

[PS. Book lovers should watch the wonderful 5-minute video interview with the owner of Duttenhofer’s. Used book stores are like animal shelters, she says, caring for books and protecting them until they make it to their next home.]