Toward the end of last year, as a holiday gift, I put together a self-published book for my family. The manuscript was originally written by my grandmother (1910-2009) when she was in her eighties, and brings to life teenage trips she took to visit her eldest sister, who lived on a Wyoming homestead. To that original document were added photographs from the trips, a short page about the author, and a cover.
My grandmother originally intended her manuscript as a young-adult title. She submitted it to a few publishers, but after finding no interest she rewrote it as a more personal family memoir. In putting a book together based on that text I was conscious both of the work’s history and of her intent, but even more so of the responsibility of presenting her fairly and well. Fortunately, she did most of the heavy lifting with her own words.
What surprised me most about producing such a work was the impact the physical book had as an object when I finally held the first proof in my hands. The words had been around for decades, the pictures for decades more, but merging them into a book created something greater than the sum of its parts. And this feeling was shared by members of my family as well.
There is, obviously, something about a book as an object that confers a sense of importance about the contents. However that book came to be, and whatever the quality of the contents, at a bare minimum someone took the time and effort to assemble it — to create a new object from various pieces of source material. The result might be the functional equivalent of a scrapbook or personal journal, but the fact that it can be held and shelved alongside other tomes gives it a familiar, almost universal purpose and place that it would otherwise lack.
The question of an object’s worth — of a book’s worth — often devolves to critical and commercial assessment. At the same time, however, most people recognize that living a life dominated by (if not determined by) money and the artistic judgment of others leads to an inevitable corruption of self. If you can make a living pounding out words or creating images or raising and lowering hemlines that’s fine, but who are you when the crowds go away and you’re alone with your millions? (You may care about your money, but your money doesn’t care about you.)
To the great, brutish publishing industry this tiny little tome has no value of any kind. If traditional publishing cast even a glance my grandmother’s way it would do so only to sputter and spit about vanity publishing, as if I was trying to sneak past the industry’s desperate gatekeepers in order to make a buck or a name for myself without first coughing up whatever percentage they feel they deserve. But this simple book was not created to get around anyone or anything. It was created as an act of love, to honor someone who lived a full life and gave as much or more than she got.
I own a fair number of books, some of which I love for personal reasons and some of which I love because of the invaluable information they contain. My family is and always has been bookish. My grandmother probably read more books in a year than I read in a decade. But of all the books that have come through our collective lives, it would be hard to say that any of them are more meaningful to us now than this little self-published title that sprang from the hand of a woman who did so much for us all.
The fact that this book is a personal work aimed at a tiny micromarket says nothing about its inherent value and everything about how important self-publishing can be.
— Mark Barrett
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