I’m about in the middle of Neal Stephenson’s Fall: Or Dodge in Hell. I’ve also just about finished Walter Wink’s Naming the Powers. At the same time I’m revising the draft of Nightmares with the Bible, which will become my fourth published book. While doing all of this at the same time (and working about nine hours a day), it occurred to me that to really “get” an author you should theoretically read her or his oeuvre from start to finish. Ideally, to trace the arc of thought, you shouldn’t leave anything out. The reason that this is as important as it is futile is one of the nagging problems that came to me while working on my doctorate: how do you know what a source you’re citing is really saying?
Pardon my nihilism, but this is an important matter when it comes to academic practice. Academics cite many sources, and often miscite them. I’ve seen it regarding my own work. One scholar argued the exact opposite of what I published in an article and even made the point that he was building on what I’d stated. Clearly he was digging where I’d been building or vice versa. We were going in opposite directions and what I’d written was to undermine what he was arguing. The thought came to me now because both Stephenson and Wink are the writers of many volumes. I need to cite my sources, but it’s clear that the books are merely slices of lifetimes of thought. Academia wants you to show your work, but its dated even before you press the “send” button.
I’m not knocking scholarly process. It’s the best system we’ve come up with for getting near to the truth. Since no one person has the entire truth, however, we get closer still if we follow a writer from start to finish. Those of use who use pseudonyms in order to keep our day jobs only complicate things. Our works (which we hope will outlast us) are only fragments of a larger world of thought that goes on behind the writing of books. And what about weblogs, or “blogs”? The million-plus words on this one are a stream of consciousness that weave within, behind, and outside of the books, articles, and stories I write. Some writers make bold as to attempt biographies of other writers. Some try to read everything said writers wrote. Even so they’re only getting part of the picture. To understand where a writer’s coming from requires more commitment than we’re likely willing to spare. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some books to finish.