What is a book for?

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jul 5, 2013

I’m approaching “the end of major combat operations” on this blog, and a bit of a valedictory post about this whole project is on the way… as a bit of a lead-in to that, though, I feel like jotting down a few thoughts about why one writes a book and what purposes it serves.

This was largely prompted by a recent e-mail, informing me of the publication of yet another book in what one might call the “jeremiad” category, i.e. a documentation and lamentation of some or other “wicked problem.” And it occurred to me to wonder, not for the first time, just what the point of these books could be. They generally look like miserable reading, as a result of exploring really depressing situations and, moreover, situations which provide benefit to a small, concentrated and powerful group while spreading costs among much larger but diffuse groups. i.e., situations all the more depressing for the unlikelihood of their being changed, certainly by books that I can’t help suspecting mostly just preach to the already converted. I mean, I certainly don’t shy away from reading about problems of the world, but generally a magazine-length article is about all I want to swallow in one go.

Thinking about it this most recent occasion, though, I had the idea that maybe the point of the book is, in some sense, simply a pretext for getting magazines and talk shows and online news to produce those kinds of briefer stories on the author and his or her cause.

I’m not sure how much truth there is to this, let alone how much anyone actually consciously thinks in these terms, but there seems something to it. If I want to concentrate attention on some issue, which I consider important, that nonetheless lacks any crucial event or other inherent focus for journalism’s preferred sense of urgency… maybe the best thing to do is create an event in the form of a book launch, which will have at least a chance of producing some interviews, etc., and getting a word out to that audience which might care if informed but doesn’t really want to read 300 pages on the issue.

It’s a theory. A theory that, admittedly, has little to do with Brilliant Deduction aside from offering a contrast for my own approach of writing a book as an end, itself. For some while already, in fact, I’ve felt a bit like some kind of archaic oddball for having written a book with the primary purpose of expressing myself in the form of a book; I was not trying to create a calling card to promote myself as a lecturer or “expert,” and though I welcome any inquiries about adaptation I wasn’t really thinking of my book as a “pitch” to Hollywood either. Once someone asked, in the context of discussing the book, if I was “doing programs yet,” and while I was and am open to talking with anyone interested… a small part of me, I confess, wanted to answer that “yeah, I wrote a book, people can read it; that’s ‘my program.'”

Obviously, though, whether one is writing the equivalent of broccoli (good for you but of limited immediate appeal) or a hopefully more appetizing and “popular” nonfiction, that program doesn’t seem to take one very far. Recognizing this, I’ve tried a variety of ancillary activities in my first go at published author; I’ll come back in a day or so to review how it’s gone.

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