How many copies of Mark Twain's autobiography will be enough?

It's now official: "The Autobiography of Mark Twain" is the smash hit of the season.

Booksellers say that the first volume of Twain's 700-plus-page memoir is so popular that they can't keep the book on their shelves.

If you were a university press publishing a $35, 760-page memoir that weighed four pounds and was written by a writer who died a century ago, how many copies would you think it safe to print? Not wanting to get stuck with too many unsold books on your hands, you might feel that 7,500 was a sufficiently large number.

Not, however, if the writer was Mark Twain. His publisher, the University of California Press, had originally planned a small print run of 7,500 copies of first volume of "The Autobiography of Mark Twain." But in a happy surprise the book has vaulted to the top of bestseller lists and bookstores across the country are reporting that they are having trouble keeping the enormous volume stocked on their shelves. The UC Press, The New York Times reports, has gone back for six more press runs but "cannot print copies quickly enough." Suddenly 275,000 – the current total press run – is looking way too small.

The Michigan printer that is producing the books is working overtime and is even employing extra-large trucks to rush thousands of additional copies to eager booksellers.

What might Mark Twain have said had he known that his memoir – which he stipulated could not be printed until 100 years after his death – was facing such eager demand? It's hard to say. This is, after all, the man who wrote that, "Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man. The biography of the man himself cannot be written."

But then again, Twain is also known to have said, "I can live for two months on a good compliment." And for a writer, could there be a more resounding form of applause than this unexpected posthumous tribute?

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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