The Dreaded Second Book

Forgive the self-indulgence of a post about my writing; but it’s my birthday, and I’ll cry if I want to. The hiatus in posts here began as a way of dealing with grading and continued as I shifted gears to the early summer “return to research” that begins in May and lasts… well, not long enough. Anyway, I’m prompted to note that it’s been a decade since I set down in earnest to finish my first book, in the happy environs of the Moore Institute at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Had 29-year-old me known that the second would still be unfinished today, he probably would have wondered what went wrong. I can forgive him that, because he didn’t really know anything.

First academic books, the ones that begin as dissertations, can feel endless. You spend so much time and effort just getting to the dissertation stage that the research and writing seem to take forever. And then you have to do the whole thing over again — or large parts of it, at least — just to get what will still, at long last, only be your first book. If you’re lucky. And yet in retrospect there is something reassuring about these fixed hoops to jump through. Your dissertation is probably the most carefully vetted, poked at, and probed thing you will ever write — the very idea of it, to say nothing of successive iterations of the text, is framed and reframed to meet the standards and address the criticisms of advisors, committee members, granting agencies, and editors and readers. And, in many of its crucial stages, it is done to a deadline.

The second project is another matter: it is your own in a way the first, though that generally defines you as a scholar on the market and in the profession, can’t quite be. Yes, you still need grants, and you still have editors to convince and readers to please. But you now confront these without the prior approval of a supervisor or committee and without the prior assurance that you are at a bare minimum pursuing something worthwhile, barking up a plausible tree. You may well not be convinced of this yourself. Here be impostors.

Or so I’ve found. In my own case one consequence, or perhaps a cause, of this has been that the precise subject of my second project, which I had begun to think about while completing the first, took some time to pin down. Well before the first book was out I knew I wanted to follow up on my work on seventeenth-century “political arithmetic”, or (in conference-elevator parlance) demographic quantification, by looking at its later uses. I also knew I did not want to write another history of statistics, or of demography as a discipline, or of probability, or even of biopolitics. I was interested, rather, in why people were interested in population, in what they understood by it, and in what kind of meaning numbers of people had for them.

As I discovered, these questions led in many directions, even when (less and less defensibly) confined to the Anglophone world of the later seventeenth and early-to-mid-eighteenth century. One set of demographic interests was colonial; another religious; another both at once. Meanwhile — and here, as a postdoc and then junior faculty member, I committed the cardinal yet inevitable sin of saying yes to too many things — there was the question of what population meant before the widespread use of quantification; of how my topic fit into still wider timescales of economic and social debate. What about mercantilism? What about More? What about Malthus? (What, as I am often asked these days, about Domesday Book? Alas, I haven’t found a place for that in my final scheme.)

Soon my modest plan to look at political arithmetic, c.1660-1760, had exploded into a series of large questions and speculative answers about population and quantification — but also governance, the state, Providence, biblical exegesis, natural history, agriculture, poverty, migration, and empire — that spanned three hundred years and a dozen subfields in nearly all of which I was equally a stranger. The project had become unmanageably large and intimidatingly broad and yet also, it seemed, impossible to divide without doing violence to the subject that I was convinced still lay at its core. Within a few weeks of starting a sabbatical originally intended to see the manuscript off, in 2013, it was clear that I was years from finishing.

Around this time, I read a passage in Stephen Greenblatt’s preface to Renaissance Self-Fashioning that put my situation in a more optimistic light:

I felt… a growing sense of excitement: not so much a governing idea as a feeling of something brewing. This feeling, before the actual difficulties of writing set in, has always been for me the happiest moment in the composition process: you become alert to everything, including things that everyone including you had long regarded as boring or unimportant, and everything you encounter, however accidentally, seems potentially rich with significance. Things almost literally seem to leap off the page. I knew that the book would come together before I knew how it would; I knew it would have a strong, governing theme before I had the words for that theme. I trusted the marvellous feeling of alertness because I trusted the energy that it would confer upon the act of writing. I believed then and now that only in the act of writing can one discover what one needs to say.[1]

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this was what convinced me to press on, but reading it helped. The visceral alertness Greenblatt described matched my own feeling in the act of research, however ambivalent my reflections on it became as self-imposed deadlines came and went; and the truth about writing, however distant it might at times appear, was one I could remember from my first book and would just have to trust to finding again when I was finally ready to sit down and compose the second.

And so it is proving, as I once again sit down to write. But it took years to get to this point. Which prompts a final qualification, obvious but necessary: as much as it took to make it through the first book, the second is the product of not only new responsibilities and distractions but also of luck and privilege, time and space. After tenure my research deadlines, an intensively cultivated grad-school habit, were in part self-imposed; adjusting them to the realities of the work and to those of a changing life and priorities was largely up to me. Had I not landed the job I did when I did, or were I held to a fixed production schedule of so many articles per year, this would not be so. The work could not have developed as it did, for good or ill, because I could not let it. Of course, my second book might still turn out to be terrible; if it does, the fault will be all mine.


[1] Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), xiii.

One thought on “The Dreaded Second Book

  1. Best yet, and with a little tweaking, should be published elsewhere as a pep talk to discouraged writers. And now that you mention it, what about the Domes Day Book?


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