Had a long conversation on Friday with a good friend who was pretty down on the concept of a book on the mouse. He’s someone whose opinion I regard highly (he was a journalist with several major papers, and author of three books) and so I listened carefully.
Basically, the argument against the book was:
- First, books that make global claims for the importance of quirky, offbeat subjects�Clams! The Mollusk that Saved the Universe�are intellectually illegitimate.
- Second, despite the two magazine covers, the mouse is just too eccentric and uninteresting to be a popular book: it’s like a book on the history of the power cord, or the stalper (Staple! The Incredible Story of the Office Device That Won World War II).
- The Bucky book, in contrast, would be a lot more interesting to serious people, and one that given my non-academic career but proximity to academic resources (most notably the Bucky papers, which are just down the road at Stanford), I could take the risk and time to do well.
I have good reasons for not getting book-length with Bucky, despite the incredibly richness of the Fuller papers. I think getting deeply into his work would drive me crazy, and I’m not sure I like him enough to give up years of my life to him. The argument that the mouse is too offbeat, in contrast, is the one that worries me, as it strikes at the heart of the project.
My calculation is that prospective readers will do a kind of mental double-take over a mouse book: their first thought when they see it on the shelf will be “how strange,” but after a paragraph, though a kind of rhetorical jujitsu, their skepticism will be turned into interest. But if they never give it a second look, then it becomes… well, an academic-ish project, a melange of history of technology, online publishing, DIY archives, and a weird self-reflexive blog. And consequently, not academic: coloring outside too many disciplinary and normative lines to make it recognizable as a monograph, and too strange to be a popular book.
I have faith in the value of the subject, and I think I have solid reasons for working on it, but that doesn’t mean that other people will buy it. Since I’ve never tried to write a popular book, I can’t say whether my judgment is sound; and this isn’t a subject that exactly has a built-in killer narrative: it’s one that requires a lot of interpretation and explication to draw out its importance. I’ve been thinking of the mouse book as less a chronology or narrative history, than as a chronologically-arranged series of essays, which may just not fly in the trade market.
I’m not sure that I want to write another academic book. I just haven’t thought of it: every time I’ve thought of the mouse book, I’ve assumed it would be a trade book. But I’m sure that an academic press would take it, if only out of distraction. These days academic presses are desperate for titles with the prospect of wide sales, but they don’t yet have the seasoned killer instincts of Madison Avenue. (Stanford even thought that my eclipses book could sell well!) So I might be able to convince one of them to share my delusion long enough to get the book out on the shelves.
So is the mouse like salt and cod, or like power cords and common minerals (Talcum! How an Unknown Mineral Saved Civilization)? Does a quality like this (call it an inherent foundation of interest) really exist in a subject, or are all subjects equally dead until they’re animated, Frankenstein-like, by a good writer? I’ve had the experience of working on things that seemed to write themselves, but that wonderful phase usually came after an awful lot of work. Usually, a good story includes an awful lot of what you manage to bring to it, and while there are stories that seem so rich they’re hard to tell badly, I hesitate to think that any subject has an inherent Property of Interestingness.
It’s interesting that we have different readings of what constitutes a risky yet worthwhile project. To me, the mouse book is the sort of project that I could never have considered as a tenure-track professor: it’s far too popular, too much in the genre of Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet or Dava Sobel’s Longitude, and too much an exercise in contemporary history. To him, in contrast, my institutional position makes the Bucky project more appealing: Bucky is a harder nut to crack, but he has a kind of public stature that would translate into intellectual legitimacy for me (writers are a bit like moons, shining by reflected light), and there’s a core of people who are always going to be interested in him.