The Addiction

I’m an addict.  It runs in the family.  My addiction, though, is learning new things.  Research, it seems, comes naturally to some and not to others.  Like any other activity, some people love it and others, well, don’t.  I think I knew this about my young self, but I didn’t have any context in which to frame it.  Jobs were seen as a kind of necessary evil—you had to do something so someone would pay you and you could buy food and pay the rent.  Nobody in my family could say, hey, that research interest of yours could become a career.  The impetus for even going to college came from a minister who changed my life in many ways, and his encouragement was seconded by several of my teachers.  Many of those I went to school with just stayed in the area and found jobs.

So I get onto a topic and begin to research it.  You soon come to know what Lewis Carroll meant about tumbling down rabbit holes.  It leads to Wonderland.  Always I’m surprised at how little I know.  I’ve learned some new things and that which I thought I knew proves to have been so minuscule that I wonder at my boldness of even trying to write books.  I guess I believe in giving back.  The other day someone asked me to write a follow-up to Weathering the Psalms.  As I told him, that was my plan when I was employed as a researcher.  What happened to my “career” led to my renewed interest in horror.  It just made sense in the light of circumstances.  When that happens, what can you do?  Research it.

There’s a sense, I suppose, in which you end up where you’re meant to be.  If I’d stayed in higher education I’d have had precious little motivation to write about horror and religion.  I had three or four vital research agendas, depending on where I might end up.  I’d have been happy to stay with my semitic goddesses.  I had a second book on that topic well underway.  Fully employed with an optimistic future, I’d given up watching horror.  So much so that I ignored The X-Files when it was running.  So the addiction changes specifics over time, but the drive to learn more underlies it.  Even this morning I learned some mind-expanding things, for me at least.  And I know I will keep coming back although it may cause problems for my career and it gets me nowhere in the larger scheme of things.  I’m helpless when I know my fix is as close as a book.


Dark Academia

Over the weekend I “dropped” a new YouTube video on my channel (you can see it here, or by visiting my “YouTube” page in this website’s menu).  It ended up getting a little flurry of interest (1,800 views in the first three days), prompting a friend to tell me that if you pay attention to what’s hot on the internet, you can actually get attention.  That makes sense.  What’s so hot?  Dark academia.  Of course, my video really moves to dark academia adjacent, to what happens to real people when they try to teach religion and run afoul of “doctrine.”  There’s a real disconnect here because if you earn a good Ph.D. you’ll be taught to question everything.  If you’re a doctrinal believer, you’ll question nothing.

I stopped posting on YouTube a few years back because my cheap camera no longer worked.  It lost about three episodes I shot and, discouraged and too busy with writing projects, I gave it up.  I started again because I realized my phone was capable of recording and I had a holder that would stop it from slipping.  So why not?  Topics aren’t really a problem, but shooting and editing a video take a lot more than the eight minutes that result from it all.  Finding the time to edit, and learning how to edit in iMovie, are tasks in themselves.  And I’m an old dog.  Still, I miss that classroom audience.  I’ve been told that blogging is passé, and podcasts take even longer to record.

Some people make a living vlogging.  In fact, “YouTuber” can be a profession.  Those who succeed are often young.  And let’s be honest, a middle-aged white guy in a book-lined study is a tired trope.  Well, it is, in reality who I am.  A teacher at heart, I now try to imagine a virtual audience.  When I first started doing YouTube videos I had a very difficult time imagining an audience.  I fumbled a lot—I don’t script my videos.  If you’re interested in scripted I’ve got this blog right here.  The bump in interest in my dark academia post doesn’t translate to my other videos about my books or related topics.  Still, those are the things I know best and so it’s easiest to talk about them.  And possibly reinventing yourself.  I guess that’s what I’ve tried to do here.  Sloppily, stumblingly, but nevertheless, I’ve been changing my identity.  My YouTube channel’s not that active, but if there’s interest I can explore further reflections on dark academia.


Gift Books

The New York Times recently ran a story suggesting that books are not only the ideal gift, but that this has been the case for a very long time.  The article points out that treasured Roman Saturnalia gifts included scrolls, or the books of the time.  Books are the gift of knowledge—who wouldn’t want that?  Also, I’ve been reading about the fact that money can be any medium of exchange as long as it’s agreed upon.  Why not books?  Being an American, it’s often amazed me how intellectuals are held in such low esteem in this country.  We pay our teachers poorly, we mock those who read “too much” (as if such a thing were possible), and we dismiss what experts of many subjects tell us because we don’t like to admit others might be smarter than we are.

Reading, like arithmetic, doesn’t come naturally to people.  We evolved to survive and reproduce and our brains have that prime directive.  Along the way, however, we learned to communicate effectively and cooperate on large ventures.  These ambitions required wrapping our brains around things like advanced math and learning to interpret squiggles written by somebody else.  Kids, full of energy and needing to play, don’t want to sit down to learn these things.  At least most don’t.  In some parts of the world those who do take naturally to such things are celebrated.  Teachers are venerated.  Learning is revered.  Ironically, in this country where some of the best higher education is available, we want to belittle those who attain it.  We prefer to play with our guns.

Now that the holiday season is upon us, however, I think of reading.  I keep a list of books I would like to have.  It’s well over a hundred titles long.  In a good year I can read sixty or more tomes.  It’s an engine that requires a lot of fuel.  Although in all likelihood I’ll never be able to retire, I keep my books against that time when I fear I might become bored.  Or that my mind might start to slip.  Reading is mental exercise.  In my current writing project, I’ve been discovering new connections almost daily.  Often in unexpected places in books I learned about only in recent months.  I write these words surrounded by books.  There are more in the attic, and more in the next room.  I may not ever have enough money to retire, but if we ever decide that books should be currency—and even if we don’t—I’m wealthy indeed.


Split Personality

This may be the way to develop a split personality.  For the majority of my waking hours of the week I’m a biblical studies editor.  I do the usual, boring editorial work associated with that job.  Academics contact me supposing I’m just some Joe who majored in English and who has to pay the consequences.  Once in a very great while the person contacting me knows that I once was a professor as well, but that’s rare.  So I have one part of my life.  When I’m not at work I continue to research (in my own way) and write books, as well as this blog.  Being in “the biz,” I have a fair idea about how to get published in the academic realm.  Ever since Weathering the Psalms came out I realized I could use that knowledge to steer my books toward appropriate publishers, but all of this is very separate from my day job.

A third compartment of this personality is as the closet fiction writer.  I’ve had thirty short stories published (under a pseudonym, for work purposes) and anyone curious about that pseudonym’s life can’t really tap into this one because I have to keep them separate.  I’m also involved in a faith community.  Most of the people there are surprised that I watch horror and write about it, and even write it.  Only two have expressed any interest in reading what I write.  So it is that each of these discrete elements—and they’re not all!—prevent me from being an integrated personality.  I know other religion scholars who watch and write about horror.  Because they’re academics they can integrate it into their profiles in a way a mere editor can’t.  To be fair, they’re misunderstood too.

The possibility of living an integrated life is limited in the workaday world of capitalism.  Companies want you to spend as much time as humanly possible making money for them.  You shouldn’t try to shine any light on yourself, and if you do, well, keep the company name out of it!  Who wants to be associated with some horror pariah?  And yet, statistics reveal about half the population of the United States enjoys horror movies.  A significant number of those people attend religious services or belong to religious bodies.  So what’s a graphomaniac to do?  I write because that’s what I do, and have always done.  I started in fiction and moved to academic and now I blog.  Somewhere in there there’s a person and someday I may discover who he is.


Not Sleepy Yet

Working on a doctorate changes the way you think.  Or at least it’s supposed to.  Easy answers have to be examined closely, and sources critically scrutinized.  One of the side-effects of this is that many Ph.D.s tend to think that only others of that status are able to do good research.  An essential piece of research, however, is passion.  This part isn’t always logical and can’t always be explained.  A recovering academic, I first resisted Gary Denis’ Sleepy Hollow: Birth of the Legend because it was self-published.  I’ve had bad experiences with self-published books before but what I discovered here is that Denis is quite a capable researcher, driven with a passion for Washington Irving’s tale.  The execution may be a little rough, but the data-gathering is very good.  He tries to point out where accounts have problems and attempts, where possible, to resolve them.

Denis is driven by the question of what in Irving’s story is factual, if anything?  This is probably not a question an academic would ask, presuming that fiction is fiction.  Still, there is data.  The first four chapters are very good.  Here he lays out the background to the region, Irving, and stories of headless horsemen.  I learned quite a lot from it.  The final three chapters turn to the main characters of the story—Ichabod Crane, Katrina Van Tassel, and Brom Bones—asking who they might’ve been based on.  The best drawn of these is the first and there’s good reason to suppose Irving based Crane’s situation on that of his friend, Jesse Merwin.  The other two, however, are sketched rather hastily and lots of people have suggestions for who might’ve been behind them.

Clearly aware that authors borrow and make things up, Denis knows that Katrina and Brom may well be pretty much imaginary.  He also knows that Irving did indeed borrow much from previously known stories and legends.  Irving’s real genius was in the way he expressed these stories in colloquial English, making American literature a blend.  Although Irving wrote many books, his fame was largely due to two of his stories published early in his career.  One of those stories, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” has left quite a paper trail and Denis leaves no rock unturned in his efforts to collect data on it.  I’ve read a fair number of self-published books over the years—they’ve been easy to produce since the internet began—and I’m wary of them.  This book, however, is one that I’m glad I found and it serves as a useful reminder that good research isn’t limited to the privileged few in the academy.


Day Two

You have your suspicions when you first spot them, but you have to wait to confirm it.  You’re flying in mid-to-late November and they’re concentrated around one particular destination.  They won’t be the only ones going there, of course—families with kids, late vacationers, others traveling for business—but they will be among them and you can learn to spot them.  The attendees of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting.  Pre-pandemic there were reliably about 10,000—a biblical myriad—of them.  We’ll have to wait to get the figures on them this time around.  In any case, I make a game of spotting them at the airport.  Well, if you’ve got a connecting flight you need to wait until the final leg.  It’s possible some got on with me in Allentown, but I didn’t spot any likely candidates.

The male of the species is easier to identify at a glance.  Bearded, serious demeanor, slightly out of touch when it comes to fashion.  Incongruously sometimes they’re wearing jeans but you know that’s just their traveling raiment;  once they arrive and get tweeded up they’ll be easier to place.  Otherwise you can identify them on the path by their talk.  If they enter into discussion with a seat mate or someone walking to the baggage claim or getting onto the public transit, or even in restaurants, they will speak of strange things.  Their language will grow technical and their frowns will be discerning.  They are assessing, you know, assessing the ideas that don’t fit with their personal theories about samsara, or Origen, or Jeremiah.  And they don’t mind saying so, right out in public.

As important as I know religion to be, and as much as I know that to understand it deeply you must spend years and decades studying it, I sometimes wonder just how others must view us.  I still dress like them, although I travel in my tweed because it makes my suit-bag too bulky to pack it.  On the plane I read an actual book (likely about religion, but that’s not a guarantee), and once in a while someone who hasn’t realized that the conference is over will want to talk business in the airport while waiting for a flight when all I want to do is pull out a novel and try to get the shop talk out of my head for a little while.  This is the unusual experience of attending AAR/SBL.  I’m sure there’s enough material here for a sociological study, but I think the sociologists have conferences of their own to attend.


Remember November

I didn’t get his name.  I could have, because he was wearing a name tag.  I was too busy thinking, “that won’t be me.”  I ended up being wrong about that point.  He was sitting in that depressing place at the AAR/SBL meeting in Kansas City.  That room for those waiting to see if they’d scored any interviews.  “I’ve got publications,” he told me, “I’ve got years of teaching experience, but no interviews.”  Our capacity to fool ourselves should not be underestimated.  I was just sure that once I was in that place—publications, teaching experience—I would be able to find a professorship.  I did find one that lasted about fourteen years, but after that, my nameless friend, I have to say “you were right.”

I can’t help but think of that when I attend this conference.  It’s a place of lost dreams for me.  I can see my books on display here.  I can see literally hundreds of people that I know.  I’ve gone from a vocation to a job, and there’s no going back.  Sometimes I wonder if adjacent careers are a good idea or not.  I’ve put some books under contract from new Ph.D.s who eventually decide to disappear.  Not to be found anywhere in academia, their books left unpublished.  Perhaps they met my mysterious prophet.  Maybe they came to realize that working in a job right next door to where they want to be will only ever remind them of loss and regret.  We continue to the glamour of a conference that reminds many of what they never found.  El Dorado.

So as I sit here in Denver with my past.  I actually made it to Denver, which is, I suppose an improvement over last time.  There was snow, in Denver, but the locals seem to be fine with it.  Not many people are wearing masks these days, I’ve noticed.  There were a few stalwarts on the plane(s) and a few here at the conference who did.  The pandemic doesn’t bend to the will of people, not even religion scholars.  Viewing Denver from the airport (it’s a considerable way out), it looks so small and insignificant backed by the front range of the Rockies.  Maybe that’s what all of this is about: significance.  My association with this conference spans 31 years.  Perhaps there’s a bit of weariness here too.  The pandemic may never really end, not in any meaningful way.  I do wonder if my nameless friend ever found a job and if he still attends.  If he does I wonder what he would say about all of this.


Cone of Silence

I still get asked occasionally.  Actually, I was never asked when I was employed as a professor.  Peer review is essential to the academic process.  Although I hung my shingle at Nashotah House for a decade and a half, nobody was passing by.  Now I get asked from time to time, to do some academic reviewing.  As an editor I have to ask people to do this on a daily basis.  It always bothers me when some privileged professor says, “I don’t do peer reviews; I’ve got my own writing to do.”  Well, professor, if everyone felt that way you would never be published.  We’ve got to pay our dues, no?  Getting a Ph.D. doesn’t necessarily make you humble (although it should) or considerate.  Although I’m hoping to move away from academic publishing to the more popular trade venue (believe me, I’m trying!), I know that holding a Ph.D. means I should review when I’m asked to.

Right now I’m reviewing a book manuscript that I really wish I could talk about here.  Problem is, peer review is either a singly or doubly-blind process.  The author doesn’t know who the reviewers are—that’s crucial.  And sometimes the reviewer doesn’t know who the author is.  Although this blog doesn’t get a big readership, it’d be just my luck that I’d be spouting off about some ideas I read and the author of said manuscript (I don’t know who it is, in this case) would happen upon my remarks.  That means I have to make this post about the process rather than the content.  Too bad too, because I’ve had a number of conversations about this very topic recently.  Ah, but I must keep my fingers shut.

Peer review isn’t a foolproof process.  I try to remind people frequently that nobody—and I mean nobody—has all the answers.  As the Buddha reportedly said, “Don’t take my word for it, check it against your experience.”  I used to tell my Rutgers students that same thing.  Don’t take my word for it just because I’m standing in front of an auditorium full of students.  Ask others.  Ask yourself, does it make sense?  And don’t believe anyone who claims to have all the answers.  That doesn’t solve my dilemma, though, of wanting to tell the world about the hidden book I’m reading.  It ties in so well with what I try to do on this blog.  And, really, it’s an honor to be asked.  Someone thinks I have knowledge worth sharing.  Only I can’t talk about it.

Photo by saeed karimi on Unsplash


Former Education

Like most people I don’t have time to sit around thinking much about college.  Once in a while you’re forced into it, however.  This time it was by an NPR article.  I attended Grove City College for a few reasons: it was a Christian school close to home, it wasn’t expensive, and, perhaps most of all, I knew campus because the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church held its annual conference there.  I’d been several times during high school.  It didn’t hurt that I was a Fundamentalist at the time.  Grove City was a college of the Presbyterian Church and I loved having debates about predestination with professors who actually believed in it.  At the same time, I was encouraged to think things through, which liberal arts colleges are known for promoting. Is it now “conservative arts?”

Photo credit: The enlightenment at English Wikipedia

The NPR story my wife sent me was about how Critical Race Theory is disputed at my alma mater (sic).  I noticed in the article that Grove City is no longer affiliated with the Presbyterian Church.  It’s become much more right wing than that.  At the same time they ask me for money on a regular basis.  What made them think they had to go hard right?  Are they still educating students or are they indoctrinating them?  It reminded me of a sermon I heard at yet another conservative school I was associated with: Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary (or at least it was then).  The priest made an entire sermon about how it was right to be conservative, as if no matter what the issues there was some creed to get behind in staying behind.  As if virtue exists in never admitting you were wrong.

I suspect that my failure to attain a full-time academic position at a reputable school was because of what looks like a conservative outlook, despite the evidence of this blog.  Yes, I grew up Fundamentalist—you grow up the way you were raised.  Hopefully, however, you start thinking after that.  And experiencing.  And yes, using critical thought.  There comes a time when “because I told you so” just doesn’t cut it anymore.  For many of us that’s when we go to college.  If it’s a good one you’ll be encouraged to debate with your professors.  Not one of them has all the answers, I can assure you.  Education is, by its very nature, progressive.  We learn and we continue to learn.  We don’t stand still and say the 1950s was when God reigned on earth.  It wasn’t.  And it wasn’t any time before that either.  Now we know that Critical Race Theory should be taught.  We know Black Lives Matter.  What I personally don’t know is what became of a college that was once conservative, but at the same time, believed in education.


Express Yourself

Do you ever get excited by an idea only to be let down when it comes to the execution?  I suspect that’s a standard human experience.  For me it often happens with books.  Especially academic books.  I get excited about the ideas that are sure to be lurking between the covers only to discover that the author has unimaginatively fallen into bad academic habits, such as “scholar A says, but scholar B says.”  Just tell me what you say!  Reflecting on this I realize that building a case has become conflated with taking a test.  A doctoral dissertation is a years’ long test.  Your ideas are being compared to those who’ve gone before you—the fact that they’ve published has proven that—and you are expected to show your work.  Did you read Smith?  Have you struggled with Jones?  Is Anderson in more than just your bibliography?

This kind of extended citation leads to turgid writing that slays any interest in the subject by the end of page one.  I’m not alone in this critique.  Some famous academics, such as Steven Pinker, have noted this.  In a not nearly frequently enough cited article, “Why Academics Stink at Writing,” Pinker lays out the bad habits that get perpetuated throughout the modern academy.  It comes down to, in my humble opinion, the fear of the exam.  Test anxiety.  Recently my draft of The Wicker Man came back from peer review.  While the comments of the reviewers were helpful, and quite complimentary, they felt there should be more academic dialogue going on.  I push back at this: if you don’t believe I’ve done the research, why approve the book for publication?  Most academic writing stinks and there’s no reason it should.

I’m a slow reader.  My average rate is about 20 pages per hour.  I know this because my morning routine sets aside about an hour for reading each day, and I note how many pages I consume.  Lately some of the academic books I’ve read have hobbled me down to 10 pages per hour.  I keep waiting for the narrative flow to kick in, something that I can follow and absorb.  Instead I’m learning what everybody else, often except the author, thinks about each minute point of his or her thesis.  Please, just tell me what you think!  I trust that you’ve done the research.  You wouldn’t have been granted a doctorate if you hadn’t.  The last thing I would want from my, admittedly few, readers is for them to close my book and say, “I’d rather be reading something else.”


Footnote Lament

I listened to a presentation on a famous novelist the other day.  It was noted that this writer was a master researcher, having read a lot for each book he wrote.  I don’t doubt it.  This novelist didn’t hold a doctorate, however, which makes even his historical novels suspect in the eyes of the academy.  I often think of the humble footnote.  You can’t read everything on a topic, not if it’s broad enough on which to write a book.  As soon as you send the proofs back to the publisher you’ll inevitably discover a source you’d overlooked.  And critics will delight in pointing this out to you.  I sincerely hope that my next book project will be devoid of footnotes.  There are personal as well as professional reasons for this.  One is that I like to believe what I have to say is important.

You see, the footnote is a way of backing up an assertion.  I remember many years ago reading a piece by a journalist who was scandalized that professors are so pressed for time that they rely on reviews rather than reading the actual book.  That journalist may not have been aware of just how much is published.  As an author you have to learn to say “Enough!”  The work is done and I’m not going back to it.  Footnotes will give you respectability.  Show that others agree with you—indeed, said it even before you did.  One of my great struggles with academia, besides the obvious, is that I’m more inclined toward creativity than your garden variety professor.  I like assert things because I know them to be true.  And those people I’m footnoting, they’re doing some of that themselves.

Finding yourself in a footnote

Academic respectability really comes into its own after death.  Even so, looking back at some of the “giants” in the field you can see that their ideas haven’t aged well.  They were important at the time, but now we look and see their western bias, how they didn’t take diversity, equity, and inclusion into consideration.  They simply accepted the dead white man’s version of the way things were.  They live on in footnotes.  You have to earn the privilege to be original.  Otherwise you’re just some patent clerk or editor and why should we take your word for it?  One of my zibaldones has written inside the cover Nullius in Verba—take nobody’s word for it.  I believe that, and yet I find myself having to put my source in a footnote.


Immature

I’m not immature, but I have to admit to having done a double-take every time I saw the name of the school.  While living in Edinburgh my wife worked for a short while at the Medical School and I couldn’t help but notice the official name of the associated veterinary school: The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.  I was sure Dick was a surname and yet little boys never grow up, it seems.  Fast forward to just last week when I had occasion to look up Arcadia University, here in Pennsylvania.  For those of you who’ve never had the privilege of being an editor at an academic press, I’ll say that one of the things we constantly do is check out colleges and universities.  In the case of some church-related schools it’s easier to get the straight dope from Wikipedia before going to their actual websites.  I never rely on Wikipedia alone, of course.

A defunct college (Marvin College). Image credit: Nyttend, via Wikimedia Commons

Still, the Wikipedia page for Arcadia explains that the school had to change its name because internet searches were being blocked for sexual language.  The former name of the school?  Beaver College.  Human beings have a very wide variety of slang words to refer to our genitalia.  I suspect part of the reason is the fun of establishing, and violating taboos.  There are many schools that could fall into this category (Ball State comes immediately to mind), but when it gets to the point that search engines block you because they assume your mind is in the gutter, what choice have you got?  Changing names is a big expense and even bigger hassle, but everyone searches for everything on the web.  It’s our common reference book.

I don’t know whether to believe Wikipedia on this point or not, but I know from personal experience that employers or commercial servers can block “offensive” information.  I’m a religion editor.  When I took our car in for service some years back—they have free wifi for customers so they can work while they wait—I soon found I could not get onto any websites mentioning religion.  Given my job, that’s a bit of a problem.  The garage had blocked it as a taboo topic, perhaps for good reason—I have no way of knowing.  What it means is that my wife now has to take the car in for service.  Regarding Arcadia, it probably doesn’t help that it was an all-female school.  Its first name was Beaver Female Seminary.  Things have changed since 1853, but I’m afraid that those of us who are immature still find this a little funny.


Not a Scholar

It’s insensitive.  And behind the times.  Google Scholar, I mean.  They send me emails telling me that people can’t read my research because I don’t have a verified email.  When I sign on and enter my email, it tells me to enter an institutional email instead.  I don’t have one.  So it sends an error message implying I’m not really a scholar after all.  Like hundreds, perhaps thousands, of academics, I had to settle for a job in the corporate sector.  Unlike some of my colleagues, I still research and write and try to maintain a web presence so I can be found.  Compared to non-academics those of us who’ve been through the system are few.  Even so, this can be an exclusive lot.

There are quite a few academic websites these days.  I’m not sure which is the biggest or best regarded—I’m not verified, after all.  I have an active account on Academia.edu, and recently, to gain access to an article I needed, I joined Research Gate (dot net).  Academia is after me every day to upgrade—they follow the “free cookie” model.  It’s free but if you really want to be discovered you can pay a modest fee for an upgrade.  I suspect Research Gate is the same.  And Google Scholar.  These websites aren’t out simply to promote you for your own benefit.  Of course, real scholars can be naive.  I’ve been in the business world long enough to be suspicious.  There’s no such thing as a free account.

What such websites don’t take into account is that academia is a harsh and punishing place.  Institutions are almost always run by businessmen these days and professors are deemed too expensive to maintain.  (Nobody’s talking about how university president salaries are too high, I notice, but they’re verified.)  To push knowledge forward we get rid of those who’ve dedicated their lives to study.  Those departments that bring in money—greed is not an academic field—thrive.  The academy was founded to further religious knowledge.  Soon study of the law was added, but law was considered something handed down from on high.  Some of us, and not a few, were naive and unverified enough to believe that fields that had been around for a millennia or so would be around for at least long enough to get us through to retirement.  Instead, learning has shifted online.  And to be part of that club, you must be verified.  At least according to Google Scholar.


Sabbatical Request

I don’t know when I became one of them.  It seems that I was pretty busy in my early teaching days, and starting a family.  I didn’t feel, however, that every single minute was programmed down to the second.  I had time for writing, vacation, and family, as well as work.  The other day when I was sending out those reminders to authors that their books are a bit (years) overdue, I realized just how busy they are.  Then I took a moment and considered that I’m not sure how I became one of them.  The people who are too busy.  Clearly buying a house was a big part of it.  I’d been pretty busy before, but now I need to invent time in order to get everything done.  The staycations I allow myself end up with feelings of guilt for all that’s been left undone.

Maybe it doesn’t help that I can see the neighbors out my office window.  When I see one of them weed-whacking or mowing during the day, I think I need to do the same.  But I’m also out of string for the whacker.  I really need to get to Lowes so I can stock up—last time they had only one spool left, which is probably why I ran out.  To get to Lowes I need a weekend.  Preferably not one with temperatures in the high nineties.  And without meetings cutting into weekend time.  And when it’s not raining.  Time is slippery.  Even as I work I often have other things—many other things—I have to do running through the back of my mind.  How did I become so busy?

Speaking only for myself, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than reading and writing.  I do these daily only by carving out inviolable time for them.  It is costly time, I know, but to me it’s beyond price.  Thinking of these colleagues too busy to submit their books, I think back to my own professor days.  There’s no doubt that I read and write more now than I did then.  There were times (grading, accrediting body visits, commencement, etc.) when there simply wasn’t time to do anything else.  Many colleagues mention health issues on top of all this.  Academics, as those who supply (partially, but responsible for a goodly number of) books, the number published each year truly boggles the mind.  I would try to figure all this out, but I’m afraid I simply don’t have the time.


Who’s It For?

I suspect editors see this all the time.  I also suspect that I’ve unknowingly participated in it as well.  If you’re a book writer, you have to be clear of your readership.  As an academic editor I receive many proposals for books that either cry for popular treatment, but are too academic, or books that are written for laity on topics of interest only to academics.  A writing life is a struggle to find that correct balance.  Particularly for your typical academic.  You see, doctoral programs don’t generally include instruction on how publishing works.  Or in writing.  It’s assumed that any string of 100,000 words from a credentialed expert is worth publishing.  Worse, as Steven Pinker has pointed out, academics are rewarded for writing poorly.  No wonder people are confused!

Lately I’ve been on a kick about people not paying attention.  It is important to observe.  When writing a book it’s important to gauge who might want to read your potential book.  Indeed, this is something seldom asked early enough in the process.  Who is this book for?  Will they want to read it?  You see, we have this lone ranger attitude to book writing.  In actual fact, most books you see in bookstores are the clear result of teamwork.  Yes, authors do most of the writing.  In many books editors do quite a bit of the fixing of the writing.  Agents, marketers, publicists, sales reps—there are a host of people behind successful books.  It’s easy to think, while writing, that your book will be a bestseller, no matter how academic.  That you will see it in Barnes and Noble and point it out, ever so casually, to your friends.  That it will sell for less than $20.

It’s important to pay attention to what other people think.  We’re all busy, I know.  We have our own lives to live and plans to enact.  Who has time to bother thinking about who might read their book?  Obviously, other specialists such as themselves.  But how many people is that, really?  With the sheer number of books published each year, are there topics that will draw in thousands, instead of hundreds (or less) of buyers?  Writing a book naturally makes you think the topic is important—vital, even.  It’s easy to transfer your personal interest onto the masses.  My advice, for those few who ask or care, is to think carefully about who you wish to reach.  Be honest with yourself.  And try to think from the point of view of somebody else.