I came across this very insightful set of words by Max Arthur Macauliffe, who wrote (amongst other things) the immense six volume The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors (Cambridge University Press, 1909). It resonated with me strongly, having been working in academic publishing now for over 15 years. I must have commissioned hundreds of books in that time, and worked on thousands. In that time, I have also published my own novel, and worked on several books of poetry. I’m in the (long, drawn-out, possible stalled) process of writing a second novel. I don’t think this depresses me – in fact, it reminds me that the work is important and that I have worked on books that have had impact on people’s thinking, teaching and learning (more than will be said about my own writings, and I am fairly sanguine about that). Yet it gives me pause, and also encourages me to look within and think : what’s here, that’s truly me, and truly mine, and do I have the humility and patience to actually do anything with it?
“The preacher of old said that ‘of making many books there is no end’. For the last century their publication has increased in geometrical ratio, and prodigious must be the number which find their way into the streets and shops which sell quicquid chartis anticitur ineptis. The author fondly hopes that this work, which contains an account of the last great religion of the world which remains to be exploited, may escape the general fate. At the same time a glance at the shelves of any large library must convince a writer of the vanity of most literary labour, if haply the love of fame is dearer to him than the love of his subject. The blurred and hoary volumes, elaborately illuminated and bound, which no one now ever peruses, were often produced at the expense of years of toil–nay, of health and even life itself–and now remain sad monuments of the transitoriness of fame and the frequent futility of human effort. But there is even a worse fate than this, namely, the obloquy so often meted out to authors instead of the legitimate recompense of lives of strenuous toil devoted to literary or scientific investigation. Even under favourable circumstances the author of an elaborate work of this description, the production of which has occupied several years of his life, cannot always hope even for temporary reward in the approbation of those dear to him, those whom he would wish to please; for either their measure of years has grown full, or separation and varied interests have dulled the feelings of mutual pleasure which would result from his success.”
MAX ARTHUR MACAULIFFE
The Sikh Religion Vol 1, p. xxxii- xxxiv