In 1965, a veteran Portland journalist named Ralph Friedman
self-published an eccentric 134-page travel/history guide titled Oregon for the Curious
. It cost $1.95, sold 22,000 copies in two years in a state with roughly half its current population, and ranks today as the greatest self-publishing success story in Oregon literary history.
A few years later, Friedman wrote that he and his wife broke even on the risky venture, but...
...the matter of profit became less a cardinal theme as the months went by. Our lives were charged with a new kind of electricity; something was always happening. We met hundreds of people we might never have known. Oregon became more intimate to us....the education we received was priceless.
If ever there was a more inspirational passage written for Oregon writers considering bringing out their own nonfiction books, I haven't read it. If you really believe in your book and have the energy to take it directly to the people like Friedman did with Oregon For the Curious and his several other titles for 20 years, your book will be a success in this state because Oregonians love books about Oregon and support the writers who obsess over the state's unique stories and find ways to publish and market them.
And I would know.
Oregon for the Curious isn't exactly a lost or obscure book; it's widely available in thrift stores, garage sales, book shops, libraries, and online. But does anyone really read it anymore? You should if you have even the slightest interest in modern Oregon history.
"I like to think of this as a travel guide in reverse; the emphasis is clearly upon the off-the-beaten path places," wrote Friedman in the book's introduction.
And that's exactly where Friedman went, to the lesser-known or totally-unknown places, and wrote about them and their inhabitants in terse descriptions (and, infrequently, with wonderful literary flourishes) that fused history and tourist information. Friedman must have met every old timer in Oregon; he held some of the last conversations with many of the men and women who homesteaded parts of Oregon.
Here's a selection of my favorite Friedman riffs:
Warrenton is home of Bioproducts, Oregon’s only whaling station. Whale meat makes fine mink food.
Vernonia is a folksy, slow-gaited town that seems hundreds of miles removed in atmosphere from Portland. It is the kind of place you drive through and say you ought to spend some time there someday but never do.
Sunset at Yaquina Bay, when the fishing fleet rides at anchor, is a color symphony of vivid orange, yellow, red, and saffron, muted by a subtle range of pastels.
Emerging from the voluptuous contours of the Willamette Valley, garbed by the colors of the plantings and growings, Oregon 22 sprints past the buttermilk smoke curls of lumber towns and enters a bewitching kingdom.
What sets this book apart today from other long-lost and forgotten guide books is its prescience, whether intended or not. Friedman toured the state in the era before the super-slabbed, straightened interstate highway system and its attendant development changed Oregon and the country forever. In fact, in 1966 Governor Mark Hatfield dedicated the completion of I-5 — and I-84, I-405, and I-205 were coming.
As I read Oregon for the Curious, I sometimes felt Friedman sensed that Oregon faced crucial decisions on how to protect its natural beauty. Then, at the conclusion of the book, indeed the last page, the objective journalist in Friedman vanishes altogether and the editorial writer emerges. "This Oregon is a beautiful land, but it has suffered at the hands of the careless, callous, and selfish, who in small or large ways have despoiled one square foot or many square miles....this is a plea for conservation....the beauty of Oregon cannot endure desecration."
His plea was answered. Tom McCall became Governor, and during his two legendary terms (1967-1975), a bipartisan Oregon Legislature enacted a series of visionary and unprecedented conservation measures that, in time, created the modern Oregon we enjoy today.
One has to wonder: Did Friedman's slim, unconventional, self-published and wildly popular book have something to do with it? I like to think so.
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A Ralph Friedman Vignette by Stephen Anderson
Ralph Friedman's ad in the Sierra Club newsletter caught my eye. "Oregon author needs a driving companion while he researches a book about Oregon." I'd never met him but knew his name. This was sometime in the mid-1980s.
At this point in his life, Ralph was treading roads he'd been down many times already, but he needed to confirm details and make sure his work was up-to-date. We never knew where the day would end because side roads would open up, or a sign for a new park would appear, and we'd have to check it out. There were old timers to look up. They might invite us in.
In the trunk he would have a couple boxes of books. When we stopped where there were people around ? a park, a rest area, outside a café ? Ralph would start up a conversation. Often his opening line was, "Wanna buy a book about Oregon?" If you showed the slightest interest, he'd wave you over to his trunk, show you some books, and launch a story. Sometimes people would walk away with several of his titles. Ralph would close the trunk with a satisfied smile and a few more bucks in his pocket.