From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

July 31, 2008*: Why don't you write a book?

People who discover that I've devoted more than ten years of my life to a series of monthly columns that occupies an obscure and very infrequently visited corner of cyberspace often scratch their heads with more than just a bit of astonishment. Why, they ask themselves, and of course me as well, would someone do such a thing. Perhaps a decade ago, at least for a short period of time, personal web sites were very in, and today having a blog, or a presence on Facebook or MySpace is, at least if we can believe statistics, almost normative. Still, it seems that most people I meet understand a personal involvement with these sorts of web presences as a rather limited side aspect of someone's life, not something that a person devotes a continued effort, month after month over an extended period of years, to maintaining. And even though the internet has become an almost physical presence in our lives, and earning a living with work related to it garners a certain degree of status, there still seems to be something inherently ephemeral about it - we can point to, or link to, a web site and say "this is mine", but we can't really hold it in our hands and weigh it, appreciate it as an object. This is perhaps the reason that the question that I'm most frequently asked (at least today) by these people is why I don't write a book instead.

After many years of being asked this question I suppose that I should have a prepared answer, something that can be pulled from my pocket on a moment's notice. Instead, the best I can do is utter a few stuttering excuses, make some poorly elaborated apologies that seem to recognize that perhaps I really should be devoting my time to a more important endeavor. Truth be told, the actual reason is considerably simpler - I don't write a book because I don't know how to write a book. When in the past I've given this as my reason, however, it's usually viewed as a joking attempt to simply evade the issue. If you can post so many words online, people tell me, then surely you could write them as a book! My attempts to explain myself by stating what for me is the obvious - that there's a vast difference between writing a column and writing a book - don't seem to help. The truth, of course, is that there's more involved here than just the difference between an accumulated set of columns and a purposefully constructed book. There's the unavoidable issue of hypertext, for instance. The branching nature of a Boidem column allows my associative thinking processes almost free reign. When I think of writing a book, on the other hand, I feel compelled to rein these in, to stick to the point. After all, how many parentheses can one book hold per page?

After many years of writing these columns, and quite a bit of other web-posted materials, I've reached the point at which I'm no longer sure that I really know what a book is. By that I don't mean that I wouldn't identify one if I saw one - I see them every day, and throughout the day. Though it may contradict my carefully cultivated Boidem persona, I can honestly admit to even reading them. But as web reading and writing have come to dominate my reading and writing efforts, pushing book reading into the background, I've found that I can honestly write that to a certain extent I think differently than what I would identify as "book-writing thinking". I still think in sentences inside my head, and often these sentences blossom into paragraphs, but those paragraph don't seem to cluster themselves into larger aggregates that might become books. Though a very substantial part of my day is spent reading, most of this isn't book reading. And as my encounters with books (from start to finish) declines, it becomes harder for me to conceptualize what a book that I might write would look like.

Though these ruminations may work as excuses for me, I doubt that they can really satisfy my questioners. They, after all, aren't asking what it is that keeps me from writing a book, but rather why wouldn't I make the effort to get published in such a way that I'd get more exposure for my ideas. Disregarding for a moment the question of whether my thinking out loud actually merits a wider audience, it's fair to ask whether a book would actually contribute to getting more readers. As a kid I remember that once a month we'd receive a catalog from (I think) Publishers Central Bureau, a clearinghouse for academic presses who were remaindering, at rock bottom prices, books, primarily monographs, that they'd published. The people who'd written these had undoubtedly distributed a few copies to their friends and families, and a number of libraries had also probably purchased them, but the fascinating array of titles that filled these catalogs also let us know that these books had enjoyed only a very short-lived circulation, and a limited readership. Experience shows that having a book published doesn't mean that it's going to be read.

Despite the understandable, and inevitable, head scratching, I don't doubt that many of the people who ask me why I don't write a book mean it as a compliment. If you're capable of maintaining a web presence such as this over such a long period of time, they're suggesting, then surely you're also able to write a book. A book is still viewed in our culture as an achievement, and because we can hold it in our hands it commands a respect that no web site, no matter how impressive, can probably match. A book is seen as the ultimate achievement of someone who writes, so I should be honored that people suggest that I've got a book in me. And yet, I can't help but feel that the mental model that most of these people hold toward what writing a book entails is far from accurate. I'm sure I exaggerate, but I often get the impression that many people see books as simply more writing than just an article. But for me, a book isn't a lengthy collection of ideas and/or opinions that's defined more by its length than by its content. A book is a consistent whole. And perhaps that's precisely the root of my major problem here. I admit that I'm far from sure that I'm capable of creating that consistent whole, but I'm also not even sure that I want to strive toward it. What perhaps attracts me most about a project such as the Boidem is precisely the fact that though it may present a whole, the most consistent aspect about it is its inconsistency.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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