Writing the Second Book

Yesterday I submitted the first full manuscript of my second book to what I very much hope will be its publisher. (Note to editors: I love you. Please love me back!) As with the doctoral dissertation and the first book, submission felt impossibly distant at every moment up until the moment it happened. I’d say that I’ve known what I wanted to do in this book — the point of it, or the “intervention” I meant it to make, as we used to say in the mid-anthropocene — for about five years. Five years for an academic history book isn’t bad! But I’ve been working on this one for eleven.

When I started on the project that turned into this (maybe) book, I was not yet thirty, not yet married, not yet a parent, not yet steadily employed — a stranger to diapers and committees. I was still pretty new to Facebook and thought Twitter beneath contempt. Kindles were still in black and white. Truly, it was a distant age. So this book has been in the background and occasionally the foreground for a large and definitive chunk of my life. Bidding it farewell (at least until the editors return it, festooned with garlands, pipes and timbrels raised in song) feels a little like leaving one country for another.

The second book means a lot of different things, potentially. Were I at an elite research university, a second book on the way (or in press, or well reviewed) might be the difference between getting tenure and looking for a new place to work. As it is, I’ve been tenured for years at a university whose core mission still includes teaching, so it doesn’t mean that. To some eyes, a second book augments one’s seriousness as a scholar. I recall one faculty member at Columbia telling us, in an orientation at the start of the PhD program, that most historians were “one-book” historians. This wasn’t praise. Whatever its merits as a summation of Ivy League attitudes, as a criterion of judgment it is meaningless now, when most budding historians’ first book-length, monographic studies — I speak of course of dissertations — serve as entrées to non-academic careers.

In this light, the submission of a second book is more than anything evidence of unusual privilege and good fortune — on the job market, in the job itself, in one’s “support system” (read: family, friends, professional networks). Getting this far is something to be grateful for, and also something to make one think about the terms of one’s success. Who else that never got the chance might have done as well or better in my place? Many, surely. Will it be possible for my students to do likewise? The outlook is not encouraging. (Will they want to? is a question worth asking, but is not for me to answer.) Is writing books — writing the kind of books I’ve written, in particular — even something that needs doing? The world is, after all, on fire. Maybe what we really need are more buckets.

“Bracketing” those questions — as we used to say, back when there were conferences — there are some things about the experience of writing the second book that might be of interest to those who are fortunate, driven or doomed to undertake the task.

The first is that, in comparison with a first book based heavily (as mine was) on a dissertation, the second book is inescapably your own. No committee vets your initial idea, no supervisor steers you clear of danger, no formal defence certifies that what you have produced is passable — maybe even passable as history. I mentioned that while I worked on this project for eleven years, I knew what I was doing with it only for about the last five. Simply defining my subject in a coherent way took years of false starts to do. Thinking about how to approach my sources in a way that let me get at what I wanted — and drawing and redrawing the temporal, geographic, and generic boundaries around what became my archive and my argument — this was work. And it was largely done without oversight, beyond the furrowed brows of seminar audiences.

I am not downplaying the difficulties of the doctoral dissertation; far from it. One could easily flip everything I’ve just said around: you don’t have supervisors and committees breathing down your neck, forcing your work into boxes you don’t want it to fit, ruling out lines of inquiry you want to pursue or pushing you down avenues where you don’t wish to go. And, in my case at least, you have vastly more security and comfort, if not necessarily more time, in which to do your own thing, than during a PhD, when you are likely either working other jobs or accruing debt — or both. (As all this also suggests, those who somehow write multiple books without full-time or tenured employment must often be dealing with the worst aspects of both scenarios at the same time.) I suppose my point is that one is not especially good preparation for the other.

Nor do I want to sell the collaborative aspects of the second book short. As my Acknowledgments section bears witness, a cast of… well, dozens was involved. If the book is in some ways more my own than the first one was, it is also more the product of interactions with colleagues — chats at conferences, e-mail exchanges, comments on drafts, in a couple of cases friendships now of some standing. Saying yes to most opportunities that come up, as I do, has costs but also benefits: invitations to participate in other people’s projects while working on this one forced me to think about questions or angles I would not have come to by myself. In a couple of cases, the fruits of these invitations led me to throw away years of work that now seemed inadequate to the topic. But they also gave me new foundations on which to build better analyses, more compelling arguments. Short-term pain, long-term gain. Or so I hope.

Which brings me back to the good but not unmixed feelings I have at this moment of long-sought yet incomplete triumph — gratitude for what has been possible, some real pride in the work put in, and a lot of questions.

3 thoughts on “Writing the Second Book

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