Books vs. Articles

“I began to think, at least I learned how to try to think, for to do that, one must be ready to live in a hunt for the most elusive game–our real motive or motives and not the ostensible reason.” (Norman Mailer)

I’ve been away for a while. On returning, I find I owe Randy an apology for leaving his comment in my spam filter for so long. He brings up a good point. Often our excuses for not writing are not the real reason we aren’t writing. I sometimes sharpen this point by noting that people have no difficulty being hard on themselves as long as they know it isn’t true. They’ll call themselves stupid when they know they are lazy, or lazy when they know they’ve been stupid. It’s not the insult that stings; it’s the truth that hurts.

As Randy rightly points out, once a disciplined, orderly process has become second nature, not only are you more productive, you are better able to consider more precisely what is holding you back, and what might be really be keeping you from speaking your mind. Some of the truth you discover there is hard, but it’s healthy to come to the realization of your real limitations. You can then take deliberate action to overcome them.

He also raises a more technical question. Do these difficulties arise differently in the writing of books and the writing of journal articles? My sense, from talking to my authors, is that books are experienced as “freer” platforms for expression. The rhetorical and editorial demands seem kinder and more human. I would also argue that an article is written somehow “closer” to the act of publishing. It feels, in the writing moment, more public, while a book, as it’s being written, remains a private experiment. I think this feeling comes through in the finished products. Articles seem much more, shall we say, “politic” in their expression, while books seem much more frank, more candid.

For this reason it can be a great idea to always be working on a book. Alongside your daily efforts to present ideas for public scrutiny on a running basis in article form, take a moment (27 minutes) to find out what your real motives are by putting similar ideas the way you might in the “privacy” of a book. The reason it feels different is, in part, that you don’t expect quick reactions to a book-length argument. It’s not a simple transaction.

Borges once encouraged us to remember that a book isn’t just a linguistic structure; it is the lasting effect it has on our imaginations. In that sense, perhaps, an article is much “structuralist”. An article isn’t so much the experience we have while reading it as the “impact” it has on our “citation network”. Each paragraph is written to achieve this effect. A book is different. It is truly a conversation with the reader. I like the idea that it’s more “private”. I’ll think more about this.

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