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Ninety Years of Spiritual Merchandising

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If you've heard of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, a small white poetry book with a drawing of a man staring intensely out from the cover, you probably associate it with the 1960s. That's when the so-called counterculture Bible began to be read at weddings ("Love one another, but make not a bond of love"), was set to music ("Your children are not your children, they are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself") and referenced by Elvis, JFK and the Beatles. But the book's real origins may surprise you. The Prophet is 90 years old this year; it was first published by Alfred A. Knopf in September 1923.

Despite the Aquarius generation's sincere belief that they had discovered the book, The Prophet had actually sold surprisingly well since its publication -- especially as a gift. Christmas-themed ads ran in the New York Times in the late 1920s, announcing "For your spiritually-minded friends: the Prophet Holiday Edition, hand set, beautifully printed and bound, is now ready in an attractive gift box."

The book's 26 broadly themed sections seemed applicable to everyone on your list: love, children, money, education, freedom, religion and death. By 1925, sales had begun to double year over year. By 1938, Publishers Weekly already found the book's "fifteen years of mounting sales" worthy of note. (Numbers apparently "fell off slightly" during "the worst years of the Depression," then came back stronger.) The Prophet was competitively selected for inclusion in the Armed Services Edition program, and distributed to thousands of World War II GIs.

Likewise, the author, Kahlil Gibran, is not the mysterious Indian guru I assumed him to be when I saw the book on my hippie parents' bookshelf: He was a New Yorker. A Lebanese-American poet and artist who lived in a studio on West 10th Street in the village, he perfected each of The Prophet's Blake-accented free verses with his unheralded editor and patron, Boston educator Mary Haskell. Crafted for maximum accessibility, they were immediately appreciated by readers.

Gibran himself only got to bask in its success for eight years before he died in 1931. But for Knopf, The Prophet was truly the gift that kept on giving. For decades, Knopf published translations of Gibran's older books; biographies; and collections of correspondence. (They weren't the only ones keeping Gibran's legacy going. No less than three separate authors claimed to have "channeled" sequels to The Prophet: in 1933, 1973, and 2007.)

By 1961, seven years before John Lennon quoted Gibran on The White Album, Alfred Knopf was saying publicly that The Prophet was his company's best-selling book. He also liked to give the impression that it had sold itself all those years: "we never really advertised it." This isn't strictly true. But The Prophet's astonishing sales record is indeed due more to savvy merchandising as a gift than to direct ad campaigns.

The book itself did not exactly endorse buying and selling, warning readers to "suffer not the barren-handed...who would sell their words for your labor." But the titular prophet was a big fan of giving: "All you have shall some day be given; Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors'." And give customers did.

Boxed sets continued to come out at the holiday season, heavily promoted in bookstores. By the 1970s, the book was also a popular gift for weddings, after funerals, and at rites of passage for young people like graduations and yes, bar mitzvahs. By the late 80s, when my mother owned a bookstore in Maine, The Prophet was available for purchase in a tiny, Post-It sized hardcover edition complete with a loop of ribbon to hang from your Christmas tree.

But what message are you sending when you give the gift of The Prophet? Judging by the forlorn, inscribed copies for re-sale on eBay, the givers sincerely felt that this book spoke directly to them, and therefore, would speak directly to the recipient. "We hope this book will become as important to you and Russell in its special way as it has to Ted and to me." The contemplative nature of the poetry seemed to lend itself to transitional moments: "As you enter this new phase in your life, may God bless you and open to your understanding the many mysteries of life."

And though The Prophet remains identified with the rebellious youth culture of the 1960s, this usage, as balm for people in pain, jives with its earlier history. People bought copies as soon as they could afford it after the Depression. Soldiers passed it around to their friends in the trenches. Is it so different really from the holidays, a time when perhaps more of us than we'd like to admit could use a little comfort? "I thought it would be cool to pass it on to you to read, maybe we could share it together. I love you always. Hope it's not too corny. Merry Christmas." And happy 90th birthday, ultimate gift book.