Columns > Published on March 5th, 2015

What The Hell Is 'Wild Animus'?

There are a few baffling items every thrift store carries.

Every thrift store has a collection of crutches. Usually they're corralled in a big barrel, and usually the under-arm pads are in a state that makes you wonder just how many people sweat acid from their armpits.

Every thrift store has golf shoes ranging in size from men's 14 to men's 177. These shoes usually contain remnants of the last round of golf played, a little dried grass and mud from whatever course frustrated the player to the point of tossing the sport entirely.

Every thrift store has a used book section, and within that section there are some books you're guaranteed to see. There's almost always What to Expect When You're Expecting. You'll always find some Janet Evanovich. You know, the fun mystery novels with titles like One For the Money, Two for the Dough. Three to Get...Deadly? Four to Score? Five to...Five is definitely something. If that's not your thing, how about a Dick Francis book? Those look to be almost the same except they also involve horse racing. Jesus, how many books can one man write about horse racing?

Interviewer: Do you have any special writing rituals?
Rich Shapero: I like to have sex while I'm writing.

And then, amongst the horse races and number puns, there's another book.

Every time, without fail, every time I go to the thrift store, I find Wild Animus. At least one Wild Animus.

Maybe it's the version with the pictograms on the front, the little drawings that look like Led Zeppelin runes. Or maybe it's the version with the mountain and wolf eyes. Or maybe I'll really hit the jackpot and find another audiobook copy. Or the musical CD meant to accompany the book.

Whatever the format, whatever the weird cover, there it is. Wild Animus is always there.

How is this possible? It's no big surprise to run into A Million Little Pieces or a Da Vinci Code. Those books, the guys who wrote those books, they were everywhere. But who the hell is Rich Shapero?  How did his book get this much exposure?

Just what the hell is Wild Animus?

For most of my life, I thought I knew what 'Wild Animus' was. Here's why.

Maybe ten years ago I ran the Bolder Boulder. For those of you who don't care for running, the Bolder Boulder is a gigantic 10K road race in Boulder, Colorado. For those of you who don't think in numbers expressed in K's, just know that 10K is pretty much forever and at the end you go into a field filled with tents and get free things.

Anymore, when I see a town of tents at the end of a road race, I pretty much seek out the beer tent and consider the rest of the tents obstacles to the beer tent. Why would I want a Powerbar right now? I just ran K's. Give me a beer and a sandwich that's full of the second worst thing for me, slathered in a sauce made from the number-one worst thing for me.

But ten years ago, way back then I was young and foolish,  I was naive enough to think that any company that had their shit together enough to purchase a collapsible tent might have something to offer.

At the end of the Bolder Boulder, in one collapsible tent, they were giving away books. Hundreds of the same book. Maybe thousands.

These were real books. Professionally-bound, long, and the cover art looked pretty decent.

I went up to the table and asked if they were really free, because that didn't seem possible. But they were, and I was handed a copy of Wild Animus.

Ever since then I've seen Wild Animus here and there. At thrift stores, at library book sales. Anywhere you can buy a book someone else gave up, you can get yourself a copy of Wild Animus.

I always figured they must have given away a ton at the Bolder Boulder. I live only an hour away from Boulder. If someone gave away a few thousand copies of a book, there's a good chance I'd see it over and over, right? Hell, I see Bolder Boulder t-shirts in the thrift store all the time, so there's a good chance the books would make their way too, right? Stands to reason?

Case closed. Until I made a Wild Animus joke to my partner. I didn't expect her to know what the hell I was talking about, and I prepared to explain the joke because that ALWAYS makes it much funnier. But it turned out I didn't need to. My partner, who went to school in Missouri, said, "Oh, that book. People used to drop off boxes of that book on campus all the time."

Turns out, Wild Animus isn't just a Colorado thing.

And it turns out, acquiring this book through normal methods is almost unheard of.

I looked up Wild Animus on Goodreads. I wanted to know what people thought of it. What their opinions were.

What I found was a treasure trove of stories where people explained the weird ways they'd acquired Wild Animus.

Here are some lines pulled from several different Goodreads reviews:

Someone handed me a free copy of this book (they were giving away tons, I'm not special) as I was walking on the quad of the college I attend.

At the LA Book Festival ten years or so the author was giving out free copies of this book. He had hundreds of them. I got one.

Got mine in Chicago outside the Art Institute. They had boxes of them.

Like most reviewers, I ended up running across this as a freebie in Vancouver, on my college campus. It would disappear from the dorm every few days and then reappear in the laundry room, so I finally decided to read it.

Found it at a local Goodwill...The next time I visited that Goodwill, they had about a dozen unread copies—now that would have been a fair warning.

I got this book for free. I hate it.

i got this as a freebie at the final Phish concert.

This book came to me very awkwardly, they dropped a copy of it in the front yard and i read it

Oh, that's right, our book group got a bunch of copies for FREE from the publisher along with smoked fish.

Like so many others here, I got this book for free—it was being given away on my campus. (Honestly, doesn't that freak anyone else out that it was given away on so many college campuses nationwide, or am I just being paranoid?)

How the fuck is it even possible that this book has been in every single thrift store I have ever been in the USA and I've been to like 8000 thrift stores in my travels what the fuck is this book a govt coup

I swear that last one isn't me. We share concerns, but it wasn't me.

Take a second, look away from your screen. Think about a book you have on your bookshelf. Now think about where you got it. Friend? Bookstore? Garage sale?

Did any of you pull up a memory of getting a book outside a Phish concert? Did any of you ponder a book that just appeared in your front yard? Of course, I'm sure we all have those books that arrived at our book clubs along with smoked meats. That's a given. I'll never forget the day I got a copy of Wuthering Heights sent to my house with a pepperoni platter.

Seriously, is that not the weirdest string of stories you've ever seen? And I did not dig far to find these. These were in the first five pages of reviews. People seem pretty interested in discussing how they came about the book, and between the giveaways and library users, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who paid for this book.

I went to Goodreads for some answers, but came away even more confused. What the hell is Wild Animus? How is this happening?

Interestingly enough, and I don't want to sound like a paranoid maniac here, but there really aren't many articles or reviews, and finding an interview with Shapero is nearly impossible.

Indeed, when I clicked links, I often got the 404. Where did all this stuff go?

I did find some details about the release of Wild Animus, however.

Wild Animus was published by Too Far in 2004. Too Far was author Rich Shapero's self-started publishing company. Around the release of Wild Animus, one news writer claims to have visited the offices of Too Far, which were deserted except for two employees. 

Too Far made big plans to distribute these books all over the place, especially on college campuses. Most of the distribution was done by hiring students on Craigslist. However, there was quite a bit of time and effort put into unorthodox methods of distribution. Personal favorite highlights:

A group of "wolf women" appeared at several music festivals in Europe and Australia. These costumed promoters would encircle people and hand them the CD preview version of Wild Animus. I couldn't find pictures of the costumes, but they were wired for sound and played wolf howls from somewhere within. 

A March 2005 article alleged that actors were hired to put on fake demonstrations against Wild Animus

There was a video project involved with Animus. Allegedly we had videos of college students reading the book aloud, then experiencing the accompanying music for the first time.

These tend to involved a sincere reading:

Weird, silent, beatific stares into the camera:

And ultimately, utter transcendence:

The best promo story of all, a box of Wild Animus books was mistaken for a bomb on Yale's campus. A brave bomb-disarming robot investigated, and it turned out the box was filled with copies of Wild Animus. I'll leave the "bomb" jokes to others. Just know that if you make one now, you'll be vindicated in a few paragraphs.

Now, I know. I know the obvious answer here is that Richy-Rich Shapero self-published these, cranked them out, and basically found a really interesting way to spend a whole lot of money. I know that doesn't sound amazing. But please, indulge me. Let's talk scale for a second because I think this may be the most ambitious self-publishing project of all time.

How many copies of this thing were printed?

It turns out that finding info on how many copies of a book exist is a difficult task. Especially when the publisher is basically one guy.

I found one article that said the initial print run was 50,000, and later on a Publisher's Weekly blurb confirmed this, but did it end there? Just how many of these things are there?

Let's compare Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, and Rich Shapero's Wild Animus using Bookcrossing, the web site dedicated to people releasing books into the wild. We're going with Bookcrossing because it's a site focused on giving books away rather than sales. This experiment doesn't work on Amazon because who the hell is going to buy a book that shows up everywhere for free? I have to believe that the readily-available quantities of free books would mess up sales numbers, so giveaways are a better picture.

Why The Da Vinci Code and A Million Little Pieces? After all, there are certainly other, more popular books with higher sales. The thing is, you don't tend to see them show up at the Goodwill. Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone, for example, comes up with a relatively low 1346 books on Bookcrossing. People keep their Harry Potters.

'Wild Animus' will introduce a new template for human potential. If you don't have the gnads for it, go sit with the girls!!

Bookcrossing has 5653 copies of The Da Vinci Code listed. 
Wild Animus comes in at 3478 copies.
A Million Little Pieces? 989.

Now, let's chew on that for a second. The Da Vinci Code is probably one of the bigger print books that you're likely to find secondhand. Think about it. It was one of the last big pop books before the digital boom really hit. It was published in 2003, and the first Kindle came out in 2007. Indeed, The Da Vinci Code sold 81 million copies worldwide as of 2009.

A Million Little Pieces was a book that went through some serious hell. But its print run was more than decent. It sold more than 5 million copies worldwide.

We certainly can't look at these mixed-up data points and assume that Wild Animus has over 5 million printed copies. But what we can say, what this mish-mash of data says, to me, is that the lifetime print run for these things had to be a hell of a lot bigger than 50,000. It had to be nothing short of goddamn staggering.

Not to mention the audiobook, which was also given away in huge quantities. In 2009, a librarian used the WorldCat database to determine which sound recording was available in the greatest number of libraries in the world. Harry Potter books came in at second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth. Number one? Yep. Wild Animus. 

A quick review of what we've learned. In terms of copies floating in the wild, it would appear Wild Animus is competing with the big boys, falling somewhere between a book that sold 5 million and another that sold 81 million. And it was one of the most ubiquitous audiobooks held by libraries in 2009.

Rich Shapero must have been rich as hell to bankroll this whole thing himself. I clicked over to CreateSpace to see what it would cost just to print 50,000 copies of a book about the size and scope of Wild Animus. The bill comes out to $250,000, give or take. And let's keep something else in mind. The original 50,000 copies of Wild Animus were printed in 2004. More than ten years ago. If Shapero started his own publishing house in 2004 and printed 50,000 copies, it's safe to assume that his cost was way, way higher. Not to mention shipping, hiring people to hand them out, sending wolf women to Australia. 

Who is this aptly-named Rich Shapero, and where does he get his money?

Well, it depends who you ask.

You can read the bio on his web site. It focuses mostly on Shapero's literary inspirations, his love of Knut Hamsun and Henrik Ibsen, and his spiritual connection to the natural world, especially in Alaska.

To answer the question about his money, a piece of his bio:

He did well in the computer industry. Ultimately, he was president of two high-tech start-ups, and partner in a Silicon Valley venture capital firm.

If you look elsewhere, you'll find only a little bit more of the same story.

Bloomberg Business has a short blurb on Shapero and his professional history, which reads like the spewed results of a random name generator for 90's tech firms. Crosspoint Ventures. Shiva Corporation. NetBoost. Bluestar Communications Group, Inc. Group Inc. Powerwave Technologies. 

The safe assumption: the guy made a killing in the tech boom.

That tells us about Shapero's money, and it tells us how he got Wild Animus out to everyone. But why?

At one point Shapero had some interviews up on his web site, interviews conducted by a company that he seemed to own. I couldn't find them anymore, but I did find excerpts quoted on an old-ass blog

Rich Shapero: Some people like to write because they enjoy putting their thoughts down. They enjoy the act of self-expression, the way a child likes to finger paint. You know, it just feels good. It feels good to me, too, but I don't think it's worth doing unless something important is being expressed. I liked words and I liked the power that words have to illuminate and change people's lives, but I didn't think it made sense for me to be a writer until I had something to communicate that was important.

Interviewer: And you finally found that.

Rich Shapero: No, I just got tired of waiting.

Oh, and just because it was too fun to leave out:

Interviewer: Do you have any special writing rituals?

Rich Shapero: I like to have sex while I'm writing.

I don't even understand the mechanics of that enough to really make fun of it.

Is it too wild an assumption to speculate that, with print and audio numbers combined, when one considers the efforts put into distribution, this book may very well be the most ambitious self-publishing project of all time?

With the exception of religious texts, has anyone, ever, given away this many copies of a book in physical form?

The question, the big question behind What the Hell Is Wild Animus? is the question of whether someone can throw a lot of money behind a book and make it a success. 

Is it just a matter of getting the good work into peoples' hands?

There's a problem with the normal book reviews in this case.

Indeed, the Amazon rating is a 2-star average with the vast majority of reviews coming in at 1 star.

Goodreads is even worse. 1.9 total, lots of 1-stars there too.

The problem with the numerical review system in this case is that so many people seem to comment quite a bit on how they acquired the book and the fact that it's clearly a vanity project. Which is worth noting. Hell, I'm writing an entire column about it. But it doesn't really tell me the good and bad about the book.

I spent quite a bit of time looking through reviews to find one that seemed unbiased about the book. By which I mean reviews that discussed the text as opposed to how it came into existence. 

After some looking, I found a few consistent pieces.

People who liked it were very spiritual. Or would probably describe themselves that way. They tended to talk about personal growth, discovery, and the deeper meaning.

From Amazon:

...if you are a low IQ idiot and you can not climb out of your little boxed-in world you will not be able to experience this book which should be a movie. It would have you at the edge of your seat and exhausted yet high by the end. Issues & obstacles of your life will seem like nothing when you relive real experiences of a wild animus.

Wild Animus is a worldwide movement. It's a shared ideal. Paintings, sculpture, movies with established stars - all these have sprung from Wild Animus. People are gaining spontaneous enlightenment from reading Wild Animus! It's happening across the globe! Wild Animus will introduce a new template for human potential. If you don't have the gnads for it, go sit with the girls!!

People who were middle-of-the-road on it felt like there was, perhaps, something there. But they just weren't interested.

For a book that seemingly was meant to be something moving and thought-provoking I found it quite dull and dry.

And then you have the haters.

If you were to take The Room and instead make it a story about an LSD-addicted man who thinks he's a ram and have it take place in the frigid realm of the arctics then you would have Wild Animus.

There are a lot of haters.

I would rather watch my father take a shower than read lines like "Lindy, Sam murmured blindly" or "He felt a terrible danger in her desire" one more time. This whole book is a Comp 101 professor's nightmare.

Publisher's Weekly was the only professional review I could find. Their opinion? Shapero can write some interesting descriptions, but he spoils the ending in the prologue of his book, rendering the rest of the journey worthless. 

My personal opinion?

Well...I couldn't read it. I tried. I really tried. I couldn't get into it at all. But I think I can still add something useful to this conversation.

I've read some bad books and enjoyed them in a way. I read a good third of Tyra Bank's Modelland and only quit because I stopped reading for a bit, picked the book up again and had no earthly idea what was happening anymore. I didn't know where we were, who else was there with me, and frankly, it was so utterly insane that I wasn't sure what was new information being introduced and what I should know already.

To be perfectly honest, the existence of 'Wild Animus' as an object is a lot more interesting to me than whatever is contained inside.

To give you a tiny taste the things that happen on almost every page of Modelland, the father character, Creamy de la Creme, was a circus performer who was blinded when his wife opened her makeup mirror, accidentally bouncing a beam of light in Creamy's eyes, which sent him plummeting from a tightrope. He fell face-first onto a sword, resulting in the loss of his eye.

I also read a romance novel that involved, to my unending joy and confusion, a rocket launcher equipped with a bayonet.

Those books were bad, the kind of bad I can get behind.

Wild Animus was not bad in that way. Not in the Demolition Man way, not in the bayonet rocket launcher way. It was just kind of boring. A lot of writing for the amount of story. And it seemed like the author wanted to confuse the reader, throw her into the middle of a scene and rely on the reader's desire to solve tiny mysteries as opposed to actually just telling us what was going on now and then.

I have some patience for bad books. What I don't have much patience for is an author who is withholding information, creating a false sense of mystery by covering my eyes here and there.

What I have even less patience for is an author who withholds information when I don't care to know the answers anyway. I'm so uninterested that neither the mystery nor the answer seem to warrant much effort.

To be perfectly honest, the existence of Wild Animus as an object is a lot more interesting to me than whatever is contained inside.

Rich Shapero:

I want people to see what I’ve done. I have no commercial motive. I’m like a street musician playing for whoever might have the interest to stop and listen.

Now, this certainly seems like a view of street musicians that differs from my own. In my experience, if there's a guy with a saxophone on a street corner, he plays a damn good Ghostbusters theme, he has great sunglasses, and he has a case open for a nice donation when he can get it.

Clumsy metaphors aside, did Shapero do what he set out to do?

The book didn't make any money. But that's outside the stated goals.

The book isn't very good. But that's not necessarily within the stated goals either.

Rich Shapero wants people to see what he's done. No doubt, people have seen. People have been made aware.

In my estimation, it's such a tough call. On the one hand, people are unduly harsh towards Wild Animus. It's hard to get a clean review because it's seemingly impossible for a reviewer to come upon this book without bias.

Let's face it. We all figure a rich kid really can't write a book with heart. Whether or not this is true, it's an artistic prejudice most of us hold. We like the story of a lady living in her car and writing a great book much better than we like the story of a wealthy guy in a boring industry doing it. Although I must say, Rich's story isn't all that different from most writers. Well, other than the fact that he walked away with a hell of a lot more money:

I would get up at four in the morning, write for four hours, drive to work, bust my guts, crash and wake up at four a.m. again. If the bubble hadn’t burst in 2000, I’d be in the graveyard. I hung up my tech spurs, and focused on my very first project, Wild Animus. 

On the other hand, without that prejudice, if one were to eliminate that background, I don't know that Wild Animus would have popped up anywhere. Without the money poured into it, it seems likely this project wouldn't have been snapped up by a publishing house. That's not even a slam on the book. It's a reality for any manuscript.

I like to think that Rich Shapero doesn't necessarily consider himself a great author. That perhaps he knows where his limits are, that his prose isn't what's going to carry his books. He seems like an ideas guy, and he's said more than once that his ideas were the most important thing for him.

I like to think that while Rich Shapero hasn't written the Great American Novel, he's written something, and he's put it into hands.

I also like to think of Rich Shapero as someone who, unknowingly for most of us, heralded a future we couldn't have predicted. Now, with digital options, self-publishing and self-published authors are everywhere. They can be all over social media, all over the world, and they don't need to hire a pack of wolf women to do it.

Rich also heralded the downside of that future, a future in which it becomes harder and harder to sift the great self-published works from those that are unreadable. Indeed, the force of presence behind Wild Animus has almost legitimized it in my brain somehow. The physical quality of the object, and seeing it everywhere—it's an imposter in a literary landscape, but it's there nonetheless.

If Rich's only goal was to get his stuff out there, he's an undeniable success. He's proven that you can put a book on shelves all over the world if you're willing to devote the cash. Sure, those shelves might be in thrift stores, and some copies might not be so much ON the shelves as being used to correct wobbles, but they are out there. They're around.

If Rich's idea was to open minds, I don't think it's happened. Because, from what I can see, the primary outlet for Wild Animus is in snarky reviews. And columns.

What the hell is Wild Animus?

It's a book with a story big enough that I could write an entire column about it without describing a single plot point.

To make up for it, my favorite plot summary from a Goodreads reviewer. Spoilers, I guess:

I'll tell you the ending. A column of lava erupts from beneath his feet while he is dressed in a goat costume and wolves are in mid-air tearing him apart.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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