Saturday, October 6, 2012

A labor of love

I drove up from the city on I-95 at noon on a September day so clear I needed prescription sunglasses to keep from going blind even heading northeast, away from the sun, with the dirty New York air behind me. Off to my right the wind-licked waters of Long Island Sound were showing more sparkle than Harry Winston diamonds, a stellar beauty that only served to throw into sharp relief the grief that had seized me, a thick and bitter grief at the death of Knopf’s Ash Green, who had seemed to me, and to so many others who knew him and worked with him, the quintessential Book Man, whose death symbolized the true end of an era in publishing, an era that the generation after him -- my generation -- was privileged to glimpse only in its twilight days.

This is not to denigrate the current practitioners of the art of making books (there are still a host of dedicated people who believe that's what they do) or decry the present state of the publishing industry which is no worse than the present state of the larger world it mirrors: complex, hurried, loud, inflated to an inhuman scale. We’re due for a recalibration of motives and means across many walks of life, publishing only one amongst them.

For Ash, and for those he inspired by example, making a book was a labor of love and an act of faith. A labor of love because there was no other way for a man like him to live. He authored his life, it was his art. An act of faith because he believed in a writer's ability to achieve clarity if given intelligent and sympathetic criticism. He also believed in a future for books -- including the books that he labored over, attending to every jot. His was the bedrock faith of every genuine publisher -- books are valuable because people will continue to turn to them for instruction and delight as long as human culture lasts, regardless of format. He was one of that singular tribe who knew how to withstand the onslaught of the technocrats and money men so he could continue to do good work. Ash's books took time -- he made them so they would last. He cared for them and their authors. For him, a book was the nexus of a lasting relationship.

We held reprint meetings every Tuesday at Knopf. Ash was always there with his memory, his judgement, and his good humor. In addition to everything else he could do, I discovered that he was a superb inventory manager. From him I learned everything about printing enough books to stay in stock without carrying excess inventory. He also taught me how to balance manufacturing cost against storage cost, gauge lead time against potential lost sales, and how to set a book's retail price to earn a profit on each copy sold. Ash did all these calculations in his head, instantaneously. And his rules of thumb were a helluva lot better than the laboriously-derived algorithms of our salaried inventory managers.

Ash was an unsentimental lover -- he knew when to let a book go out of print. Just as he knew which authors' work must never be allowed to go out of print. Nothing was lost on him. He was one of those rare geniuses who don't merely accumulate experience but who actually learn from it. His learning never ceased. Nor did his teaching.

Acknowledge, o man, the brevity, the all too brief beauty of this life, and the bravery of those who embrace that brief beauty in the face of suffering and death.

I drove on, past the ruined cities of coastal Connecticut and its gilded suburbs, the shuttered rest stops and half-hidden speed traps, where the southernmost outposts of Yankee rectitude rub up against the fashionable Sodoms of finance capitalism. Tangled thoughts chased after me like the traffic in the rear view mirror. O heart and mind, hangman and pallbearer. How often is it said, "It's just a job, bud?" But it's not. Not if it's a labor of love and an act of faith.

I went to Stonington to pay my respects to one of the last real men I knew, though I hardly knew him. There I saw him carried alive by his family and friends, in their hearts and minds, in their words and deeds, from Calvary Church across the seashores of endless worlds. There I saw him walk, not away from, but towards the light.

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