Tag Archives: Writing

On books

My last post made gentle fun of us humanities professors and our research. We spend years writing our books– all the while knowing that only a few fellow-specialists are going to read what we turn out, and that the world isn’t going to change because of it.   Researching and writing, I claimed, actually just provide the framework for the more important work we do. We can live without another book on French social history, however brilliant. But we can’t survive as a culture unless someone is keeping alive our texts and other cultural artefacts– by reading, performing, and thinking about them. In contemporary America, that mainly means us professors of humanities.

And yet here I am ten days later beaming with pride and pleasure as my own new book nears its publication moment. It’s a project that’s occupied me since 2005, and now the absolute final version of the text has just gone to the type-setter. In preparation for the actual launch, the publisher has just sent me two possible versions of the cover.

Suddenly this thing is morphing from MS Word documents on my computer to a real book, and the transformation has me seriously excited.

Which suddenly hit me as worth thinking about. I mean, it’s not my first time on this particular carnival ride, and I’ve got no illusions about where it ends up — namely, back at the starting point. My book will impress some fellow scholars, vex a few others, and have no effect whatsoever on everyone else. In a year or so, even I will think think I made some weird choices in how I put it together. Anyway, today in 2014 we have other, in many ways better ways to put our ideas before those who might be interested in them– this blog, for instance.

So why does a book still have a special kind of power?

Partly, I think, it’s just because books remain beautiful objects, in some ways more beautiful than ever. (New technologies have allowed publishers to do lots of things that were once impossible or wildly expensive.) We respond to the beauty, and also to the multiple ways that beauty connects us to bits of the past. Our own, highly specific past, with its trails of books encountered in public libraries, trashy bookstores, and college seminars, and our collective past; as physical object (we’re not talking content here!), my book won’t look all that different from books Erasmus published in the sixteenth century. There’s an excitement about plugging into all those various histories.

But I think there’s also another dimension to the thrill of book publishing, something that’s absent from any other kind of writing. It’s that writing even a narrow-gauge, scholar-oriented book like mine requires creating a self-contained world, populated with its own characters, moved by its own motives and forces, marked by certain kinds of emotions and relationships. The thrill of book-publishing is the thrill of world-creating.

Now, historical study being what it is, our newly-created worlds are supposed to be “true,” or at least true according to the conventions of our discipline. Unlike gods and novelists, we’re not allowed to create a world from nothing more than our own thoughts and imaginings. Everything we say has to rest on some trace created by others– on documents from the past, discoveries by other scholars, and the like.

But that doesn’t change the basics of the world-creating work. Just like novelists, we select our characters and sketch out the terrain where they act. We give them emotions and attitudes, many of which we’ve had to intuit from mere fragments and hints in the historical record. We reconstruct the after-effects of what they’ve done, again on the basis of our own intuitions rather than from any direct evidence. Throughout, we have to give the readers who visit these scenes a sense of the rules that apply there, how things work.

And we have to do all this within the 300 pages of a typical book– in other words, we can’t just report everything we’ve found. We’re constantly choosing between what matters and what doesn’t, making decisions about the guidance new visitors to this particular world will need. Some things we have to explain; others we can leave out because vistors will already know them from their other travels.

Of course we don’t usually put it this way. We talk instead about the craft of writing, gauging our audience, the trivia of editing. Is there too much background, or not enough? Has a character been properly introduced in earlier chapters? Do the explanations I offered in chapter 1 apply to the events in chapter 6, or do I need to rethink my characters’ motives?

That common-sensical language is just an acceptable way to talk about what’s really a magic show. We’re calling a dead world back into some semblance of life.

No one has spoken more eloquently about the process than the great Russian-German-American-Swiss novelist Vladimir Nabokov, in a literature course he gave at Cornell in the 1950s:

“The material of this world may be real enough (as far as reality goes) but does not exist at all as an accepted entirety: it is chaos, and to this chaos the author says ‘go!’ allowing the world to flicker and to fuse. It is now recombined in its very atoms, not merely in its visible and superficial parts.”

Nabokov certainly didn’t intend for his description to apply to people like me. He was one of the all-time culture snobs, ready to dismiss even some heavy-hitting novelists as mediocrities. He left his university job the moment he had the money to do so. But his image applies to all us authors, because that’s what putting together a book is like, for ordinary writers as much as for Nabokov’s greats.

Cool, huh?