A while ago, the editor who published a book then #7 on the New York Times Bestseller List was asked by a reporter, “You spent over $1,000,000 promoting it. Don’t you think that money could have been better spent publishing literature?”
The editor said, “No. That’s not my job. My job is to print the books that sell.”
The reporter immediately backed down. The editor had appealed to the one irrefutable argument, the one argument that answers any criticism — profit. After all, businesses do business to make money, and publishers are businesses like any other, aren’t they?
I have a trilobite fossil on my desk, a brown stone in the precise shape of an animal that crawled the floor of a shallow sea some 415 million years ago in a place we now call Morocco. It is stone, mud hardened to rock over the slow eons between me and the creature that gave it shape so long ago. The last vestige of tissue from the trilobite itself vanished hundreds of millions of years ago. It has been replaced by mineral, and nothing remains of the animal but pattern. The pattern has endured, and I pick up the fossil now and then, turn it between my fingers, and think about patterns.
Patterns and Homer.
I can pick up a book any time I want and read the Odyssey. Homer never touched the paper I’m touching, but his words, the pattern of his thought, have survived. His mind, in a sense, has survived. His body is gone, lost even more irretrievably than the body of my trilobite, but his thoughts still live on a million bookshelves around the world.
In a way, they are fossils too, patterns that have endured for two and a half thousand years, and they are all I need of Homer. If he had been Egyptian rather than Greek, part of him might languish in a museum somewhere, but it really doesn’t matter that he is gone any more than it matters that Shakespeare’s bones still lie in an English tomb. The meaning of the men lies in their words, not in their dust. Odysseus, Macbeth, and all the rest carry the minds of their creators into the future as surely as its matrix of stone has carried my trilobite.
And that is why the publisher of that nameless book, then #7 on the New York Times Bestseller List, was wrong. Publishing is not a business like any other. It is an enterprise charged with preserving the pattern of human thought, a pattern which is, in a very real sense, Mankind itself. Profit is important, but it is not the most important thing that publishers make. They make the future, and they should not forget it.