Author’s Nightmare

A friend told me that he had a dream (“Sorry, Paul,” he prefaced it) in which my book King’s Gambit had sold only 431 copies. I gulped when he told me this. It’s not enough, I thought, that I have to have anxiety dreams about my failing; my friends get to do it for me, too!

There is a rich tradition of authors worrying about whether their books are going to slip into oblivion. Even winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature have had this anxiety.

“I can remember Bertrand Russell telling me of a horrible dream,” the great number theorist G.H. Hardy wrote in his wonderful book A Mathematician’s Apology (1940). “He was in the top floor of the University Library, about A.D. 2100. A library assistant was going round the shelves carrying an enormous bucket, taking down books, glancing at them, restoring them to the shelves or dumping them into the bucket. At last he came to three large volumes which Russell could recognize as the last surviving copy of [Russell's 1913 magnum opus] Principia Mathematica. He took down one of the volumes, turned over a few pages, seemed puzzled for a moment by the curious symbolism, closed the volume, balanced it in his hand and hesitated….”

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