A Surprise Catholic Bestseller
It's always pleasant business to report good news from the Catholic publishing scene. Actually, good news from a surprising source.
Last year Orbis Books (full disclosure: Robert Ellsberg, the publisher, is a friend, and Orbis published one of my books) published a book by Jim Douglass, a veteran Catholic peace activist and theologian, called JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. It was reviewed very favorably in America here by George Anderson, SJ. Just when you might have thought everything that could be said about the death of JFK had been said, Douglass offered a new examination of the assassination. His own contribution was to attempt to establish the motive for Kennedy's killing, tracing the process of conversion that led him, over the course of three years, from his attitude as an ardent Cold Warrior to his commitment to lead the world away from the edge of apocalypse. A series of political steps caused him to be viewed as a virtual traitor by elements of the CIA and military establishment.
The book was published by Orbis, the publishing arm of Maryknoll. Explaining why a Catholic house would publish a book on this topic, Ellsberg wrote in an email to me today, "Douglass views this history from a contemplative perspective, particularly attuned to the grave moral and even spiritual matters at stake. In fact, he draws on the writings of Thomas Merton to define this perspective. President Kennedy, it turns out, saw his mission in similar terms. In some ways, the book is a meditation on the cost of peacemaking, and it is a challenge to readers to assume the vision that was cut short by Kennedy's assasins."
The book received coverage in the religious press and won a book award from the Catholic Press Association. Sales (for Orbis) were what Ellsberg called "modestly impressive."
But thus far the book had not received any attention by the secular media.
Oliver Stone, the director of the controversial movie "JFK," appeared on the Bill Maher show on HBO and brought along a copy of Douglass's book. At one point during his interview he waved the book around and said it was something everyone should read. The next day the book shot up to #31 on Amazon and remained on the Top-100 bestseller list for a week. (Note to authors: Send Oliver Stone your book.) Orbis immediately sold 4,000 copies of the $30 hardcover edition. Stone then posted a blog on the Huffington Post. Within days his post was viewed by over 95,000 people. (Note to our bloggers: Send your link to Oliver Stone.) Suddenly Orbis was unable keep up with demand. As of today they have asked for 15,000 more copies to be printed in anticipation of continued demand, Ellsberg said.
The death knell for small presses, especially small religious presses, especially small Catholic presses, seems to be reported every day. Not so fast. Places like Orbis--to say nothing of the marvelous houses of Loyola, Liguori, Ave Maria, Paulist, LTP,Liturgical Press, New City Press, St. Anthony Messenger, St. Mary's Press, Ignatius Press, OSV Books, Pauline Books, Word Among Us and other places with dedicated staff--work very hard to provide not only fodder for prayer and meditation but books on topics that other presses may balk at. Each has its niche; each is a great gift to the church and the world.
Let's pray that, even if Oliver Stone never mentions another Catholic book on television, that all those presses, and the rest of the Catholic presses, which surprise, delight and inspire us, are around for a long time.