There is a strange out-of-body sort of experience an author can have with his own publications. When writing something, particularly a book-length project, you have immersed yourself in the subject so deeply that it becomes an inseparable part of you. But eventually it goes out into the world and you turn to new ventures...and as the years go by, it attains a certain separation. Wait long enough and it becomes almost a being of its own, that has little to do with you.
My dissertation, The Logic of Millennial Thought: Eighteenth-Century New England, was published nearly forty years ago by Yale Press and, like most dissertations, experienced modest sales before going out of print. I moved on. Years went by without my having an occasion to take it off the shelf. I did go back briefly while writing A Little History of the United States to look at what Jonathan Edwards said about the millennium of peace and plenty foretold in Biblical prophecies, and was pleased to discover that Edwards' calculations led him to believe that in the year 2016 "whole nations" would be awakened as revivals spread around the world and the end times approached. As usual, the dissertation went back on the shelf to gather more dust.
Then a week or two ago, I was browsing through the Goodreads website and discovered, much to my surprise, that they had dug up a photo of the book cover and added it to their list of my published works. More astonishing, I discovered that some reader had left a review. How far back did Goodreads go, I wondered—and then saw that the item had posted only a few weeks earlier: January 1, 2016. "This is one of those books that I bought mostly because it was there," the reviewer began, and went on to write an appreciative, funny account that made clear she had actually read the book. The author, she said, has "a dry, snarky sense of humor that I enjoyed immensely (certainly the last thing I expected when I started this book was to be giggling over it)..."
How much that review pleased me! When writing the thesis, people were always asking whether I was planning to publish it, and I would always say yes, my philosophy was, why suffer alone? Now, forty years later I felt like Tom Sawyer attending his own funeral—total wish fulfillment. Here was a book that to me had felt entirely dead and gone; then inexplicably, miraculously, it came back to life when someone stumbled across it on a used bookshelf.
I record these feelings not with the purpose of boosting sales—this volume will stay out of print, make no mistake! But scattered out there in the great beyond are copies of what was once a part of me, ready to be resurrected at various odd and unforeseeable moments. For an author, it's giddy confirmation of an afterlife.
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors