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Aug 31, 2015

Another Comic Strip Imitates (My) Life

Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me.”

Related Link Doonesbury as Documentary: Or, Comic Strip Imitates Life By Jim Loewen

In last Sunday's Washington Post, the section "Book World" miraculously reappeared. "Book World" had come out every Sunday until the Post cut back several years ago, a retrenchment symptomatic both of the crisis facing newspapers and the dramatic slide in printed book sales. The occasion for its reappearance this week is the upcoming National Book Festival, sponsored by the Library of Congress and taking place September 5 at the Washington Convention Center.

Aficionados of books know that the two areas of book publishing that have not suffered declines parallel to those afflicting newspapers are "young adult fiction" (actually aimed mainly at teens and 'tweens) and "graphic novels" (many of which are nonfiction). On the back cover of the "Book World" section are three panels by cartoonist Stephan Pastis showing the characters from his comic strip "Pearls Before Swine," including the author/artist himself, celebrating Pastis's invitation to speak at the Book Festival.

Well, maybe "celebrating" is too strong. "Hey guys!" Pastis says to his characters as he rushes into the strip excitedly. "I got invited to speak as an author at the National Book Festival." In the second panel, Rat, famously dyspeptic, pours cold water on the occasion by asking, "Did their first fifty choices for speaker die?" 

Cartoonist Stephan Pastis is taken aback; maybe he wasn't the first choice for the National Book Festival. 

Pastis had not considered this possibility. But when I got invited to keynote the Second Biennial Writers Fair in Decatur, Illinois, my home town, way back in October, 2001, I did.

 I had vaguely been aware that Decatur, an industrial city of about 75,000 in the center of Illinois, had a biennial writers fair. I knew that Decatur's best-selling author, Richard Peck, had keynoted the first writers fair. Peck has now written a total of 41 books, mostly young adult fiction. At that point, 2001, they had sold perhaps ten million copies. (Now Peck is up to twenty million.)

I was acutely aware that Decatur's second-best-selling author was not me. My bestseller, Lies My Teacher Told Me, had sold only half a million as of 2001. Stephen E. Ambrose, not then dead, and not then tainted by plagiarism charges, was surely much better known and more widely read than I.

 When the book fair contacted me, I did not suggest that they should have asked Ambrose first. When I flew into Decatur, however, I learned that they already had. Conversing with my host as he drove me in from the airport, I asked, "Why didn't you engage Stephen Ambrose? Isn't he the second-best-selling author from Decatur?"

"Well, yes, he is," came the reply, "but we have the answer to your question. Stephen Ambrose charges $40,000 plus a private jet each way!"

"Gosh," I replied. "I saved you more than $38,000!"

"Yes you did," said my host, happily.

Shortly thereafter, Stephen Ambrose indeed died, just as his plagiarism scandal broke. Perhaps he remains, even now, more interesting than I. Nevertheless, I had a wonderful time at the Second Biennial Decatur Writers Fair.

Copyright James W. Loewen

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