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The secret histories of books

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Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He's formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.

All books are invented objects with the same origin story, repeated down the centuries: their authors were endowed with the right amounts of obsessiveness and creativity to will them into being.

Hang out around writers long enough and you’ll find yourself creeping in at the margins of their work.

Sometimes your name appears in the credits, sometimes it doesn’t. But there’s a special thrill that comes with holding a book and knowing that you’re coded into its secret history.

For, make no mistake, all books have secret histories.

Perhaps the most marvellous fact about any given book is that, formerly, it was pure air. A few thoughts in someone’s brain; perhaps a snatch of words carried downwind before dissipating without an echo; the odd breath of demurral over Eggs Benedict or a pint. All books are invented objects with the same origin story, repeated down the centuries: their authors were endowed with the right amounts of obsessiveness and creativity to will them into being.

This is not to leave out agents, editors and publishers, of course, who often go to extraordinary lengths to conjure a vision into its printed form. Indeed, publishers may be the bravest species of all: they take wonderfully daft risks on the least likely ideas, often with great success. A dashing crowd, publishers.

But in the main books are pure air, until they’re not. Sometimes fate sees to it that you leave your imprint in their forming mists. It’s happened to me on a few gratifying occasions.

For example, some years ago I found myself standing behind a writer friend in the queue at Woolworths in Rosebank, Joburg. We got to chatting, and I mentioned offhandedly how much I enjoyed his posts on Facebook. “They’re good enough to compile into a book,” I said. He looked doubtful, but I pressed my case. They could be collected together, I conjectured, as a series of humorous columns on the state of South African society and culture. Then we were called to our respective tills and parted ways.

A few weeks later, a note in my inbox confirmed that he had signed a deal for the very book we had discussed. What fun! First, there was no book – and then suddenly, there was a book. When it came out, I bought several. In that case, quite generously, I got a credit in the endnotes.

For another example, a truly extraordinary case of the butterfly effect came to fruition last year, with the publication of a work of anthropology whose genesis I witnessed – nay, sparked – some two decades prior.

I remember the moment well. 

Tamboerskloof, Cape Town. My friend, an anthropology lecturer, and I were chatting by the pool of a bed-and-breakfast where our American “study abroad” students were staying. Somehow we got to talking about South Africa’s – and the world’s – addiction to mining. I mentioned that I had been reading up on a substance that was critical to mobile phone technology, and whose main supplier was another African country, just up the proverbial road.

You could see the joy and consternation form in equal parts on my friend’s face. It’s no understatement to say that, in that moment, with the casual mention of this substance, I had given him his life’s work. And the culmination of said life’s work came out in December: a fine academic tome detailing years of immersion and observation in very dangerous mining territory in central Africa.

Naturally, I bought the book and I hunted myself down in my friend’s text. Ah, there I was, on page five: “When I found out that [this substance], an ore found in [a central African country] … was essential to all digital devices it was revelatory for me,” my friend wrote.

Confirmed – I took in the awe as the revelation passed across his face – and what’s more, I had delivered it.

In this case, I didn’t score a mention in the book’s notes, but that’s neither here nor there. Sometimes the author nods your way, sometimes not. Regardless, the valence of the object they have produced, formerly pure air, changes when you pick it up. You’re in there, part of the book’s secret history – they all have them – and, let’s not forget, it’s also now a part of yours. DM/ML

PS – For those of you wondering – indeed, I took the title for this column from Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a novel for the ages if ever there was one. Give it a chance, if you haven’t read it yet.

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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