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MU Twain editor offers reason for autobiography's appeal

Monday, November 22, 2010 | 5:05 p.m. CST; updated 10:55 a.m. CST, Thursday, November 25, 2010

The title of Ryan Murray has been corrected in this story.

COLUMBIA — MU English professor Tom Quirk knows a lot about Mark Twain, but he's having a hard time wrapping his head around the popularity of Twain's recently released autobiography.

Released a week ago on Nov. 15, the 770-page book is in its sixth printing and has already sold about 275,000 copies.

"The publishers came out with an initial print run of 7,500," Quirk said. "They weren't planning on it being so popular."

But Quirk has edited several collections of Twain's work and has an educated guess about why readers are embracing the autobiography with such enthusiasm.

"Somehow there is an appeal in Mark Twain's books that is universally human," he said. "Twain is a much more available writer than most. You don't need special training to read Mark Twain."

Quirk explained that one of Twain's overriding goals in his autobiography was "to speak absolutely truthfully."

"(Twain) figured the only way he could do that was to write from beyond the grave," Quirk said. "He wanted to write without the sense of self-consciousness that comes with writing for your contemporaries."

That is apparently why the writer specified that the book not be published until 100 years after his death. He died in 1910.

Quirk stressed the unusual writing style of Twain's autobiography, of which he said he had only read portions. Quirk said he has not been able to purchase a copy of the autobiography, as the stores he has visited had sold out.

"Twain would dictate in the mornings, and a stenographer would write it down," he said. "He'd make some revisions, but mostly it was like conversation. He would change topics anytime he wanted to. One minute he'd be talking about his childhood, and the next he'd go off about today's news."

The meandering, conversational style seems to have modern appeal.

"If you don't know Twain, picking up the autobiography is like chatting with an old friend," said Ryan Murray, marketing manager for the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal. "You're able to hear it straight from his mouth."

Murray said he had seen an increase of interest in Mark Twain since the autobiography was released.

"We're sold out of the book right now, and we're getting a new shipment," he said. "It's a really great seller."

Brian Beahan, community relations manager for Barnes & Noble in Columbia, said the autobiography was a "strong seller," but it hasn't been selling out.


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