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Thursday, October 5, 2017


Some while back, I confessed my inability to grasp America’s fascination with the undead.  Today, I received a sign.  Forty-eight years ago, desperate for funds to pay for my analysis and my wife’s analysis, I signed a contract with a commercial publisher to crank out a collection of philosophical works, all in the public domain [no permissions costs], to be called Ten Great Works of Philosophy.  The advance was $2000, half on signing and half on submission of the completed manuscript.  I did the job so fast that I submitted the manuscript before they could send me the signing check.  I think it is my most forgettable book.

Time passed, the turbulent Sixties and Seventies gave way to the Reagan Era, then the Bush disaster, then the Clinton triangulation.  Computers got faster and smaller, cellphones sprang up like weeds, social media transformed the world, I aged, moved, changed departments, retired, and still the royalty checks kept coming for Ten Great Works of Philosophy.  The checks were never large, but over the decades, close to one hundred thousand copies of this utterly negligible work were sold.  To whom?  Lord knows.  Bored travelers trapped in airports?  College students in a Philosophy course taught by a professor so clueless as to consider this a suitable text?  People reaching for the Kama Sutra and grabbing my book by mistake in their inflamed state?

Today yet another annual royalty check arrived, this one for $114.55, my take on sales of 640 copies [so it seems I make roughly 17.9 cents a copy].  This check puts me over the $9000 mark, which works out to $190 a year, so sales seem to be holding up.  I shall enter this royalty payment in my Excel spreadsheet with the forty-seven other entries.  I rather suspect this walking dead book will still be around, loitering in train stations and drug stores, long after I am dead.


s. wallerstein said...

Lay people who are interested in philosophy and don't live near a university bookstore or a good library or in a big city with much culture life are likely to buy whatever philosophy books that appear in their generally smallish local bookstore. That, of course, before the age of Amazon.

I haven't read your book, but I probably would have eagerly bought it if I had run into it.

I'm sure that your book has provided excellent philosophy reading for lots of people who otherwise would not have had access to philosophy texts.

LFC said...

"Loitering in train stations and drug stores"

Get real. If you've been in a drugstore in the past, let's say, 30 years (or even perhaps 50 years), you know that the chance of finding this book in a drugstore is minimal. I suppose there may be a few small towns somewhere still with family-owned pharmacies and a few of them might carry it (and there are probably a couple of independent drug stores left in big cities as well), but the chains (CVS, RiteAid etc) that dominate the market are not going to carry this book.

I just looked it up on Amazon, where a new pb copy can be had for under nine dollars.
I glanced at the copyright page: first Signet Classic paperback edition was March 2002. Signet Classic is a division of New American Library, which in turned is owned by Penguin. It was previously published in a Mentor edition. So it appears to have long been a reasonably priced mass-market-style paperback and it's still in print. And that, plus the title probably, is likely the main reason it keeps selling.

David Palmeter said...

I wouldn’t disparage that book at all. True, you’re not the author, but you selected 10 important works that it would benefit any college freshman to read. Those works pose questions that few people are ever asked, let alone ask themselves. It could serve as the text for a required course for the first semester in college. Not everyone will major in philosophy, but it would be great if some of those business administration majors had to consider questions other than those related to increasing the bottom line.

When I went to college, I had no idea what philosophy was, but I got lucky. I registered for a course in ethics in first semester--probably for no reason other than that the time was convenient. We read excerpts from the Republic, Nicomachean Ethics, Kant’s Groundwork, and Mill’s Utilitarianism and others I don’t recall. I was especially taken by Mill--of whom I’d never heard--and then read On Liberty in a required course called “Citizenship,” which consisted of readings on a wide range of contemporary problems. This was in those HUAC-drenched 1950s, and On Liberty blew me away. I became a Mill fan immediately, and he remains one of my favorites.

Publications like your book opened my mind, and the minds of countless others--minds that otherwise probably would have remained closed. That’s no small achievement for a teacher.

Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

I agree with David Palmeter -- I would not disparage the book. I will admit that I only purchased the book for your Introduction and Commentaries -- I already owned most of the original texts. Here is the funny thing. I purchased it from the McGill University Bookstore on September 22, 1995 for $7.99 (Canadian dollars) while I was there studying political theory. I am holding the book in my hand now. It is the mass market Mentor edition published by Penguin. It was cheaply produced: the pages are now yellowing and the print is so small that I can barely tackle it with my 2.5 magnification reading glasses. There is also no room for margin notations. Nevertheless, I argue that your commentaries probably helped (the apparently many) readers gain some insight into the relative abstruse texts they encountered in the book. I only wish that I could produce such a work that has had as much exposure as your own.

As far as mainstream obsession with the undead is concerned, well, I could produce a short monograph on that.

-- Jim

David Palmeter said...

Off topic bad news from the Washington Post:

" “In giving to support Trump, his backers are pouring tens of millions of dollars into the coffers of the Republican National Committee, which has raised more from small-dollar contributions at this point in the election cycle than the national party has collected in more than a decade.”

“The low-dollar donations are helping fuel a massive fundraising advantage for the RNC, which has pulled in nearly twice as much as its Democratic counterpart this year.”

“The GOP’s success with small donors illustrates how the Republican Party, long a center of the political establishment, has managed to turn Trump’s anti-Washington message to its advantage.”

Where are the small donors to the Democrats now that the Bernie enthusiasm has died?

Matt said...

Here's a perhaps silly question: how do you get 10 works out of this? I have tried counting different ways, and I don't find an easy way to number 10 - we have three by Plato, one by Aristotle, on each by Anselm and Aquinas, one by Descartes, Hume, Kant, Mill, and James. Counted that way, it's 11. If we count the Plato sections as one, it's 9. I guess we can count the Anselm and Aquinas together, as they are short and sort of on the same topic (both proof's of God's existence) but that seems somewhat arbitrary to me. Is that how we get 10? This doesn't make any real difference, and "10 great works" sounds better than "9" or "11" great works, but it is puzzling to me.

Brian said...

I purchased this book between high school and college. (Had taken some philosophy in high school.) I only came to realize it was yours when I was reading your memoirs, or when you mentioned it in a previous post. It served as a fine introduction.

tom llewellyn said...

I used this book when I taught PHI 101 in 1986-87. Specifically, my students read the Socrates part, the Descartes entry, and the Hume selection. I supplemented your book by requiring the Republic (Cornford trans.), early Marx (from McLellan's fine anthology), and Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil (Kaufmann trans.). Your volume was very cheap and had the philosophers I needed. I supplied my own introductions and interpretive commentary. Don't denigrate this positive contribution you have made for intro phi. students.

Ginger Sanches said...

I do not think that everything is as bad as you described, custom essay writing because this book is still interesting to the readers if publishers want to publish it.