The life of a book

There’s an interesting section in Walter Kaufmann’s prologue to his translation of Martin Buber’s I and Thou that I think has a real bearing on us as we pursue our projects and that speaks particularly pertinently to the writer of today with her expanded options for obtaining a readership — by which I mainly mean no longer being bound by the trad-pubbers and their gatekeepers/bean counters.

The section reads as follows:

“Success is no proof of virtue. In the case of a book, quick acclaim is presumptive evidence of a lack of substance and originality.
Most books are stillborn. As the birthrate rises steeply, infant mortality soars. Most books die unnoticed; fewer live for a year or two.
Those that make much noise when they see the light of day generally die in childhood. Few books live as long as fifty years. For those that do, the prognosis is good: they are likely to live much longer than their authors.
In the case of a book, longevity is presumptive evidence of virtue, although survival usually also owes a good deal to a book’s vices. A lack of clarity is almost indispensable.”
(pp. 19-20)

Buber’s work is difficult but brilliant, and Buber himself was lucky enough to see his book’s rebirth out of its own initial stillborn period, achieving first in translation what it did not in its original German before finally attaining its internationally hallowed position. Buber would later remark that he was writing under a deep inspiration when he produced Ich und Du and made only very small changes to its content during his revision of the book in 1957, thirty-four years after he first published it. This despite criticisms of the work as being opaque, needlessly complex, and difficult to follow with its odd word order, usages, and multiple coinages. Kaufmann elucidates these points for English speakers and his translation is deserving of much praise.

Yet to view Kaufmann simply (simply?) as a translator would do the man and his work a disservice. Kaufmann was a philosopher and writer in his own right, and although he is perhaps best known today for his translations of Friedrich Nietzsche’s books, his work had a much deeper breadth. Kaufmann may well have been winking at himself when he made the above remarks about Buber’s famous book, with his Faith of a Heretic possibly in mind, or his Critique of Religion and Philosophy, both referred to as well in the prologue, though in a different context.

We too should wink at ourselves when we read the above. Success in terms of things like numbers of books sold, or appearances on “Oprah”, are illusory and fleeting, as Nick Cody remarked in a comment to an earlier post. We write where our hearts lead us because so much else is beyond our reach. Playing the Isaac we not only passively allow ourselves to be laid down on the altar of public opinion we actively lay ourselves there. Even while acknowledging the tremendous likelihood of our work’s stillbirth we allow the idea of its resurrection to dance in a dark corner of our mind. This is why we write with abandon, why we give inspiration and creativity full reign, and why we seize the opportunities that modern publishing technology grants us. Most books are stillborn, but they have at least been created, and stayed true to their author’s vision.

Next week, Paul j Rogers, who was so distraught by the James Taylor tee incident mentioned in my previous post that he had to take this week off.

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4 Comments

  1. Nick Cody
    Posted May 2, 2014 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    Let me first say, wow! Buber’s I and Thou translated by Walter Kaufmann is one of the few (if 40 is few) books I have in my Seoul apartment. So that’s a bit of coincidence right there. Please note that I haven’t read it! But I have seen Buber’s works mentioned repeatedly in a book called Divine Empathy by Edward Farley that I am convinced is a work of pure, scholastic genius. I’ve read it a few times before and am coming back to it for the 4th or 5th time because I have found myself getting lost when I try to summarize it’s arguments in conversation.

    I didn’t know that I and Thou had been translated by Kaufmann until I read your post tonight. Due to Farley, I have some idea what he is writing about, but it might be a while before I try working my way through Buber’s work. Cheers for that post!

  2. Andrew Oberg
    Posted May 3, 2014 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Hi Nick,

    I’m not sure if you’re interested in God-related issues or not (but I gather you are from Divine Empathy?), but only the final part of Buber’s book deals with the divine. What I’ve find most interesting is his view of the self as being based in, and formed by, relational issues. For Buber a true I-You relation has an atemporal quality, almost like a Badiouan “Event”. It’s quite interesting and you may find yourself viewing others in a different way as a result. Buber finds most of modern life to be I-It centered however, and he would have us move away from this (or at least de-emphasize and approach this aspect in a different way) if I understand his argument correctly.

    Anyway, I hope you took heart to keep writing creatively because that’s what I really wanted to say in this post!

  3. Paul j Rogers
    Posted May 9, 2014 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    Nice post Andrew. As often commented on here, we live in the best and worst of times to be a writer. The best for ease of publication and distribution and total control of the publishing process. The worst because most traditional publishers have drastically streamlined and don’t take the risks they used to being slaves to the bottom line. A full-length work is a tremendous slog through multiple drafts with many sacrifices made on the way to complete it. Success is a book you’re proud of. Everything else is just gravy.

  4. Posted May 9, 2014 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    Better to be stillborn than to be born a fake. I have more respect for anyone, regardless of genre, that sets out to do their own thing and stays true to whatever that might be.

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