Promises Are Hard To Keep

The much anticipated (for book geeks like me) publication of the first volume of Samuel Clemens’ autobiography has been given as a “powerful argument for writers’ burning their papers” according to Garrison Keillor’s scathing review in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.  Keillor, much like Clemens’ himself, notes a score of missteps in this autobiography – forcing the reader of his review to suffer the tedium of his reading of the damned book.  The review is, in fact, so tedious with tedious quotes, that, rather than eliciting even a morbid curiosity about the “fraud” that is The Autobiography of Mark Twain, I now have absolutely no desire to read it.  In fact, I have a strange and sudden urge to instigate a book burning.

It just so happens that writers get caught in their own papers all the time.  It’s the problem with print.  It tends to stick around, and what might be interesting or of note or even good one day, may in fact be pure crap 100 years from now.  Many writers, those with foresight perhaps, do, in fact, burn their papers.  Willa Cather did it.  And then she went a step further by putting a provision in her will that forbids her letters from being published.  Ever.  This fine print has made researching her, if not difficult, at the very least inconvenient for scholars.  But after reading Keillor’s review of Twain’s papers, I have to give the lady props.

Of course, Mr. Clemens has only himself to blame.  Had he allowed the book to be published in his lifetime (or even shortly after his death), he might have been forgiven.  But to put so much pressure on a piece of writing – to require it not be published for 100 years and to subtitle the thing “The Complete Authentic Unexpurgated Edition, Nothing Has Been Omitted, Not Even Scandalous Passages Likely to Cause Grown Men to Gasp and Women to Collapse in Tears — No Children Under 7 Allowed to Read This Book Under Any Circumstance”…well…

It would seem he was asking for it.

Even so, I can’t help but feel a little bad for the man. I mean, 100-year-old promises are hard to keep. Especially when one promises a blockbuster of a book that won’t be read for a century. Still, even with Keillor’s review, the book is doing well and no doubt stuffing the coffers of Mr. Clemens’ benefactors. And let’s face it – who among us doesn’t want something we’ve written to be on the New York Times’ Best Seller List for seven weeks straight (and counting) a century after we’re gone? Of course, if we aim for that, we’ll no doubt find ourselves in the same embarrassing predicament as Mr. Clemens.

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