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Ignorance, Confidence, and Filthy Rich Friends

By Peter Krass

John Wiley & Sons, 278 pages, $22.95

If Mark Twain had spent more time writing the kind of books that made him rich and famous and less time and money on get-wealthier projects, speculation and inventions, he and American literature might have been much richer for it. Peter Krass' new book about Mark Twain portrays the seemingly prolific author as one who tried to be "an Edison as well as a Shakespeare" and, as a consequence, devoted excessive time to inventions and speculation. He points out, for example, that Twain began The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1876 with the intention of completing it in two months. But he didn't publish the book until 1885 because he was too preoccupied with refining and marketing a historical game he had invented called Mark Twain's Fact and Date Game. Twain tinkered with the game for nearly 10 years before he put it on the market, and it flopped. "Imagine Mark Twain - whiskey drinker and cigar smoker - posing for 'Got Milk?' ads. Compatible consistency of deliverer and message it would not be," writes Krass. "On the other hand, his core idea of a historical trivia game was on the mark - the explosive sales of Trivial Pursuit a century later would prove that true." Krass has done a commendable job of mining information about Twain's business-oriented alter ego. And by garnishing his book liberally with Twain anecdotes and witticisms, he has made this business biography an enriching reading experience.