It may not seem that a $4.95 paperback with nothing but word lists could make a difference to an industry — maybe to the world — but that was the potential I saw in Richard Kirschman’s self-published book 25 years ago.
In those days I was on the lookout for self-published gems outside the New York book trade. I believed a connection existed between the Gold Rush era of the mid-1800s and Northern California’s small-press revolution more than a century later. True, not many of the 300,000 people who came West made money from the Gold Rush. But they all believed that anything was possible when they got to California.
This idea, that breaking away from institutions in the East can make people more personally creative and adventurous in the West, seemed to thrive from one generation to the next, especially in the Bay Area. The legendary Whole Earth Catalog (1968) started out as a self-published list of tools, for example. Hundreds of author-produced books, including my favorite, A History of Doorknobs in the United States, followed that same path: The inspiration to self-publish, which so rarely occurred to writers in New York, very often felt like the only way to go, 3000 miles away, in Berkeley or San Francisco.
Richard had experienced traditional success in 1961 when Doubleday published his New York on the House, a guidebook listing free exhibits and events. But just as connections to the mainstream often fade as authors leave the hub of publishing in New York, so does that anything-is-possible belief flow more mightily from within.
Hope at a Glance
So. The premise for Richard Kirschman’s self-published book in the 1980s was simple: Tourists planning to visit a foreign country often dread the idea of learning a new language. They see it as scary and tedious, so they don’t get around to taking classes or listening to recordings or even browsing in a language guide. As a result, many travelers feel like failures before Day One of their trip.
Richard’s book, Thousands of Words You Already Know in Spanish, promised a series that would change all that. Designed as a half-sized paperback you could fit in your back pocket, the book provided rows and rows of Spanish words spelled as follows:
— exactly the same as their English equivalents, such as inventor/inventor, labor/labor, superior/superior;
— almost the same such as depositar/deposit, paralizar/paralyze, identidad/identity;
— the same with a vowel added on as in pacifico/pacific, humano/human, incentivo/incentive.
And so on. That’s all it was, but oh, how it delivered.
In that B.C. (Before Computers) Era, one glance at these words, which you already knew in English, turned feelings of dread into surprise and delight.
Once you got used to the idea that, say, a word like supervisor meant the same, spelled the same and sounded the same in both languages, the effect was empowering. You didn’t have to memorize anything — once the ear was attuned, the next steps –the next words — fell into place.
Of course, the same thing happened to Spanish-speaking folks coming to the US or UK. One look at the other half of the title, Miles de Palabras Que Usted Ya Conoce en Ingles, and voila — I mean !presto! — you were on your way.
Richard enlisted the expertise of editor and writer (and future wife) Doris Ober to give the book some authority and class with a bright and colorful cover and inspiring (one page only!) introduction.
The two began work on Italian, French and German editions but stopped when they hit a snag. Book distributors in those pre-Internet days tended to lock self-publishers out. Readers could buy books only at brick-and-mortar bookstores, which in turn were dependent on mainstream publishers in New York who didn’t carry self-published books.
Richard tried selling to travel agents and tourist guides instead, and he practically gave the book away to ESL (English as a Second Language) and Spanish-language teachers. He’s kept a few hundred copies, just in case: Today, as conditions worsen for immigrant families at Mexican-American borders, a book like this can be the first sign of hope.
All my life, I have heard variations of that kind of energy — this book can change the world — from self-publishers all over the West. Richard stands out because he’s never been interested in making money or even selling a lot of copies. What matters is feeling that light bulb (the old kind) go off in his head and deciding to do something about it — to engage in society for its own sake, to get out there with your Great Idea and see it through; to stay involved, to never be passive, to find the gate and get it opened.
Thousands of Words today is better understood as a prototype, one of the reasons so many in West Marin admire Kirschman. He has created quite a number of projects out of thin air, gave them a physical reality and explored their potential in both the business and the nonprofit world. Many have taken off and become a success, as we will see. But equally inspiring is the way Richard has gone about exploring the world through the lens of every good idea.
“Thus began Richard in West Marin,” a Point Reyes Light reporter once wrote: “He had ideas, he invented, he petitioned. He studied, learned, asked questions and offered pragmatic ideas, always with a smile and good humor.”
Well, not always. Outrage has played a part, maybe the best part. So has ingenuity, skepticism, wonder, irony, love, despair — and some truly whacko ideas.