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Twain on the installment plan

Like many other readers, during 2010 I was drawn into the hype surrounding the publication of The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1 by University of California Press. As the story goes, Twain decreed that his autobiography not be published until 100 years after his death, primarily to allow those individuals that he excoriated or potentially offended in its pages to be safely deceased. This decree wasn’t strictly followed, as three different editors published portions of the autobiography over the years, but the big selling point of the UC Press edition was that it would be the first complete, unexpurgated version of Twain’s text.

Though the book interested me gre atly, I r arely buy new books and thought this one in particular was a luxury item that I would probably never buy for myself. But I’m also notoriously difficult to shop for, so when my mother-in-law asked what I wanted for Christmas that year, I suggested Twain. The book’s success greatly exceeded the publisher’s expectations, and with the first print run rapidly running out, even Amazon was out of stock, so she had to buy it on back order and it didn’t arrive until the first week of January.

From reading reviews I knew the autobiography was a massive doorstop of a book, but not until it arrived did I truly appreciate what an overwhelming physical object it is. The book measures 10″x7″ (2.5″ thick) and weighs a hefty 4 pounds, and I immediately realized that it would be difficult, if not outright impossible, to lug it with me on the train where I do most of my reading, and also that at 760 pages with a small typeface it was a book that I would never read cover to cover. I’m a fairly slow reader, and the book would take me months to read even if I did nothing else with my spare time, and still longer if I couldn’t read it on the train.

Fortunately, during the past few years I’ve read two other longer nonfiction books – Studs Terkel’s Working (750 pages) and The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers (454 pages) – on what I’ll call the installment plan: reading short passages of 5-10 pages periodically, whenever I had half an hour to spare. I also blogged both books as I went, publishing excerpts along with my own commentary.

I’m trying the same approach with Twain’s autobiography, which I finally started last week. It’s been slow going so far, but quite interesting. In the early passages he writes at length about Ulysses S. Grant, and in particular his efforts at publishing Grant’s memoirs despite what Twain considered the exploitative efforts of Century Magazine, which first published Grant’s rememberances in article form. But not knowing anything of the Grant-Century situation other than Twain’s version, I’m not sure yet how objectively he’s stating his position, in which he expectedly (if quietly) casts himself in valorous and honorable terms as protector of the dying Grant. After I’m done with the Grant pieces I’ll check the editors’ commentary to see what they have to say on the subject.

It may not happen this year, but I’m sure I’ll finish Twain eventually. The periodic blogging will also help keep me focused and moving forward. And at the very least, I know that wrestling this tome will keep me deep in potential editorial material for the Contrary blog for quite some time.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jeff McMahon January 9, 2012, 3:05 pm

    I’m looking forward to following along as you read Twain, Pete.

  • Pete January 9, 2012, 3:17 pm

    Please be patient. It certainly won’t go quickly.

  • Paul January 9, 2012, 5:49 pm

    My reading experience of this book has been about the same. I’m more than halfway through it, but I haven’t cracked it open in months.

    All of the revelations that had to wait 100 years seem to be little more than libel and slander about people now long dead (and mostly forgotten). And he goes on at length about issues of the day that are now footnotes of history.

    Still, the Twain voice is there throughout.

  • Pete January 9, 2012, 6:00 pm

    I’m already expecting most of those revelations to be mere footnotes – but it’s also disheartening to read that a former president and war hero like Grant was all but destitute at the end of his life. I’m not sure if that was public knowledge at the time or not, though Twain implies that it wasn’t, and that he was hesitant to divulge it.