Thursday, March 22, 2012


"The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes!" (Jorge Luis Borges)

Lately, people have been asking me about books—how to write them. The truth is that I don't know. I've never written one, though I am working on one. In fact I'm working on three or four, which is a good sign that I don't know what I'm doing (I can't even count them!). When I say "working on", I mainly mean planning and dreaming about them, not actually writing them. So, I guess I'm only truly working on one of them. But whether I'm working effectively or not will not be clear until the book is done and, ultimately, published. That's when we'll know whether or not I can write a book, and only then will I truly know how it is done.

Still, I'm presuming that a book, like a journal article, is written one paragraph at a time. A short, 40,000-word book, will have about 200 paragraphs. And so, presumptuously, I expect it to take 100 hours to draft. But I'm not sure that the chapters of a books are so rigorously structured and I also have a sense that the "flow" of book-writing is different. A book comes out of a much more organic knowledge base than a paper, or, perhaps more precisely, a much deeper one. We might say that a book is the tip of a bigger iceberg. As a result, writing it might not be the same craft as writing a paper. The experience of a writing book has, for me anyway, already been a much less formal one than the experience of writing a journal article. While you still plan from week to week, I have not been able to plan from paragraph to paragraph. In truth, I haven't tried.

There are days when I agree with Borges. Books are an "impoverishing extravagance", I think then, and I am in fact very hesitant about bringing yet another book about "how to write a research paper" into the world. While in Leicester this week I stopped by the university bookstore and had that familiar, despairing feeling that too many books are being written. I looked specifically at the writing manuals. Do I really have something new to contribute, I thought? In a journal article, it's easy to decide. Just write that one true sentence that only you know is true and then think about whether it's important enough to tell your peers. But a book has to offer something more, I think. It has to offer real aesthetic pleasure in reading it, cover to cover. I am disappointed by many books and I don't want anyone to feel about me the way I feel about the authors of disappointing books.

I'm sure that is holding me back. I'm sure the best advice for book writers is just to put your ass in the chair and get the words down on the page. Then decide whether its "perfect oral exposition" was really possible in some other, shorter form. Like a blog post.


Jonathan said...

Did you write dissertation? That would be your most book-like experience to date.

Thomas said...

Well, yes, I did. But that was long ago, and I did not write it very effectively. I've learned the hard way, I guess.