Book of the Month

Doctor Cleveland's picture

Stockpiling Books

I've been buying a lot of books this summer. That's not "a lot of books" by the usual standards, because I've always been a better-than-average bookstore customer. Lately I've been buying a lot of books even for me. But I haven't been buying them to read. I've been buying books to write.

Over the last two years, I have been steadily squirreling away books I need for the book I'm writing. Every scholarly book is built out of earlier books, in pretty visible ways. If you want your book to say something new, rather than just parroting what has gone before, you're actually going to need to build it from more books, not fewer. If you read shallowly, you'll end up saying what everyone else said. If you have a question that someone else hasn't asked, you'll have to dig for hints and clues and small pieces of evidence through dozens-to-hundreds of other books that were after different questions. If people don't already know (or think they know) the answer to your question, there's going to be a lot of research.

(Fiction is also built out of earlier books, but less obviously. A novelist or short story writer can only create something that seems fresh after she's read and digested hundreds and hundreds of other works of fiction. If you've only read a dozen novels in your whole life and then try to write one yourself, what you come up with will sound appallingly close to one of those dozen. You will sound like someone trying to imitate your favorite writer, and it will basically be fanfic. You probably won't even realize how close you are to outright plagiarism. It takes a lot of reading to get a sense of all the possible moves you can make in a story and to digest a bunch of different influences before you stop trying to sound like someone else and start trying to sound like yourself.)

Now, you can't research an academic book without an academic library and inter-library loan. But writing requires keeping a bunch of other books handy for a long stretch of time. You'll have to root back through those books repeatedly to check one thing or another, and won't necessarily foresee exactly what you'll need to look for day to day. So after a certain point, depending on the library for those books becomes either inefficient or anti-social. You need to be able to check facts as you write. You can't always be stopping short and making out a list of things to look up on Monday. On the other hand, the more useful a book is, the less fair it is to hog the library copy while writing something that takes years to finish. You don't want to be the guy who's had the standard biography of Milton out of the college library since 2008.

So, I've spent the last two years buying a book here and a book there, as I happened to find things on used-book shelves, building up a small collection of books I knew I would need for the project I've been researching. Over the years I spent writing my dissertation and then turning it into my first book, I collected a bunch of specialized monographs and reference works I needed for that project. Because my second book takes a different methodological approach, I have to accumulate a new section of my personal working library.

But over the last six weeks, the buying has picked up intensity. Instead of buying a couple of books every month, I've purchased a couple of dozen since May. Part of that was opportunity, the result of visits to used-book stores while traveling with my spouse or of finally seeing things at a good price on Every individual book was a good or excellent bargain, at least five or ten times cheaper than a new book from a university press. But I bought a lot of them, including multi-volume sets, more than enough to make me reorganize the shelves in my study. I've walked into bookstores and walked out with a box, more than once.

This newly serious book-buying feels like part of a new intensity in the writing process. The work is picking up steam, and so the reading and fact-checking have to keep pace. The preliminary phase of research and drafting is done, and now I'm starting the first really serious push. If I can sustain it, that push will take the next two years or so. During that time, I will have to work on lots of other things beside the book, but it will be the central project and there should be periods of fairly intense and sustained writing. I need a solid core of particular reference material in my writing space in order to keep momentum, need to be able to put my hand on exactly the volume I want at a specific moment in order to keep from slowing down. Assembling the books I need is like stockpiling supplies and equipment for the long push. I'm tooling up.

How this big push actually turns out won't be clear until it's done. At the moment I feel like the next two years will be the central and crucial part of the writing process. But I might be further from the end than I think. It's hard to know exactly where you are in the process of your second academic book, because the experience of writing your first book doesn't give you a clear road map. Writing that original, started-out-as-a-dissertation book is a torturous and often backward process. You start out with a few seminar papers and some ideas, and try to bootstrap them into a dissertation; because you've never written a dissertation before, you have to figure out the rules of that genre as you go, and often piece out the actual, workable structure for that document fairly late in the game. Then you've got a book-like object called a dissertation which you have to reverse-engineer into another, very different piece of writing, an actual publishable book. That process frequently demands more unexpected and sometimes radical restructuring, even very late in the game. The final version of my book was written almost exactly backwards: most of chapter four had been written first, followed in order by chapters five, three, two, one, and the introduction. While I would always recommend writing the intro last, and while I do plan some late tweaks to chapter one so that it sets up the rest of the book smoothly, that's not generally a writing process I want to reproduce.

This time I started with a clearer structure and a clearer plan. Putting a book together the hard way will teach you to appreciate how they're put together. So the sequence of writing might be more straightforward this time around. But writing a book in such a necessarily chaotic and haphazard way doesn't give you a feel for how a more normal version of the process goes, or where you might be in the process. You learn how to do it, and you learn that you never want to do it this way again. Writing the first book is about getting across the finish line alive. Writing the second book is about learning how writing one is actually supposed to work. Or at least that's my story right now; I'm sticking to it as long as I can.

Good luck, doc. Come back here from time to time when you need a break from structured argument. I have yet to write anything approaching a book, and my main problem is not lack of inspiration but indiscipline. I've bought books specifically for background research -- but for half a dozen entirely different projects, none of which resulted in more than one completed chapter.

For non-fiction, I think the ideal approach would be to just start writing mindlessly, build up speed, and write your ass off. Then, maybe a quarter of the way from the end, reread and throw out the first chapter, the second, maybe the third. Take the best discarded bits and rewrite them into a kick-ass intro that will seduce people into reading till the end. Then write the ending you've just set your readers up to want. (The great Philip K. Dick used an approach like that, except perhaps for tossing out the crappy stuff.)

Shop the story to a major studio, so the film version can be on screen within a few months of publication. Demand a screenwriting credit and a cut of the movie profits. Move to St. Lucia or Antigua. That's the theory anyway; I acknowledge your project sounds a bit more practical, and more likely to result in actual ink on actual paper. It won't get you to St. Lucia or Antigua (except maybe for a week or two) but I figure you know that going in.

Just curious: is your first book still in print, or do you think it's too narrowly academic for the average dagblogger? Michael's first book was very readable, and the other Michael's effort sounds interesting too. Of course, it would mean shedding your anonymity. Believe me, if I ever get anything in print, I'll be on here shilling like crazy.

Happy writing.

Oh, I'm not going anywhere, ac. I'll still be blogging. I'll just be sporadic and lame about it, as per usual.

I blogged here through the late catastrophic reorganization of my book, when I blew up the first two chapters and replaced them with one new opening chapter written from scratch. And I blogged here during my March "writing binge."

As for the Philip K. Dick novel plan: part of Dick' writing process was to abuse amphetamines so he could churn out more pages. Yes, he once finished five paperback novels in one year, but on the other hand he didn't have a pancreas anymore. I'll pass.

You're very nice to ask about my first book. It is in print, but it's geared heavily towards specialists, in that it presumes you already know a bunch of highly specific information and are highly interested in certain extremely nerdy technical questions. If you don't care *a lot* about those things already, the book is not much fun. But I'm sure I'll shed my blog anonymity when I publish something aimed at a smart general audience.

I would never recommend that anyone go the full Philip K. Dick route. It seemed to work for him, but I recall reading one of his less-successful novels years ago and realizing a main character had suddenly vanished from the narrative halfway through. That one felt more like acid than speed. You're right to avoid both.

I've been playing with Scrivener for a couple of weeks now, thinking it might be useful for the book I'm writing.  This is not the first book I've attempted and at some point I always get bogged down when it comes time to work on chapter divisions, flow, and organization of the materials I've gathered.  Writing it is generally the easy part.  Pulling it all together and forming it into an actual book is the killer for me.

I'm not getting very far because Scrivener requires a learning curve (for me, anyway) and I'm not willing to give it the time it needs right now, but I've talked to a few writers who swear by it.

I have a trial copy of Scrivener on my machine, but haven't gotten around to completing the tutorial. Still, I'm interested, and thinking of switching to it.

It does seem to deal with the problem standard word-processors have with pieces that aren't written in linear order from A to Z (i.e., almost anything longer than three pages). The other solution, of course, is to write a lot of drafts by hand, so you can shuffle the pages into different orders as you go.

Scrivener appears to be just what I have been looking for. Thanks.


Me, too, Emma.  Now I just have to figure out how to use it.  There is a free trial, but if anyone wants to buy it they have a promo code for the month of July.   Saves $9 off the $40 price. (for Windows;  I think it's slightly different for Mac.) 

Does it do plays?

From the site:

Scrivener comes with templates for comic book scripts, screenplays and stage plays, and when you’re done you can export your script to a dedicated scriptwriting program such as Final Draft. Scrivener has been used to write scripts in all sorts of mediums, including stage plays, comic books, video games such as Dead Space, documentaries, and Hollywood and BBC TV series.

Doesn't look like it runs on linux ... actually there is a beta version 1.5.3 that runs on linux. But there is also Scribus, which is free:

Tip learned the hard way: When researching software tjhat one might want to use, Wikipedia often translates the geek speak of the manufacturer's website (or geek reviews of it elsewhere) into plain English about things your normal average user might want to know about it.

Example: Scrivener


There is no official release for Linux, but there is a beta version. The Windows version is regularly run on Linux using the WINE compatibility software.[1]

I just went window shopping (I actually was looking for double-hung windows) at a recycling center and came back with two used books: Sabriel by Garth Nix and The Furies by Janet Hobhouse. One dollar each.

What a deal!

Screw it. I'm ready to hurl are all my research books into the river. It might be different if I had a comfortable office where I did all my work and my books were always at the ready. But I move around and do most of my writing in coffee shops. I can only carry around 1 or 2 at a time. I also don't have an academic research budget that helps me to amass a library.

So I spend my time debating which books to buy and which to bring with me on any given day. I photograph pages from big books that I don't want to carry around. I plan strategic trips to the library to minimize the inefficiency of dealing with creaky institutions that require me either to go searching in the stacks for books that are often missing or else fill out call numbers, titles, and authors with a fucking pencil and then wait half an hour for someone to fetch it.

I go googling for hours to try to find electronic versions of books that I need. When I can't find one, I often resort to piecing together the miserly snippets that google books deigns to let me see. I painfully type out quotes that can't be copied, even though they're all digitized. I curse the publishing industry and Byzantine copyright laws that prevent out-of-print books from being available online, even though google has already scanned them all. I would pay for these pages and possibly the entire book. But they're simply not for sale.

So I say, screw these damn books and this stupid archaic inefficient system. Someone needs to set up a system that lets people access digital out-of-print books for a fair price.

PS I hope you're less bitter than me by the time you finish your writing. Will this be very scholarly or accessible to schmos like us? Good luck!

I feel your pain. I get almost apoplectic when not able to copy/paste from something I can read online. Eventually I devised a clunky workaround for shorter snips using Windows print screen function and Paint to create an image of the note. It does have its limitations but since I use Powerpoint like a card file, it works fairly well.

Anyone here use Microsoft's OneNote? It has always appealed to me but have been too burnt out by other apps to try it. What about Evernote? 

I have Evernote on my laptop but I forget to use it.  All of those things are out there to make life easier but the key is learning how to use them effectively.   Also, remembering they're there.  Very important.

Have you considered writing at the NYPL? You might be able to request a carrel there, and at least you could work in the reading room. I'd have a hard time writing anything research-intensive, like the political history you're working on, in coffee shops.

Yes, the copyright laws have gotten insane and inefficient. Next time I blog about how damaging super-long copyrights are, remember all those out-of-print books from 1928 that you can't get online.

But your book will be worth all this hassle in the end. If you didn't get frustrated and want to quit sometimes, the book wouldn't be worth writing.

As for mine: it's totally aimed for an academic publisher and an academic audience. I'd like to have it get a little cross-over marketing to the rest of the world, but it will definitely have that nerdy show-all-your-work quality that puts off most general readers, who want more conclusions and less detail about evidence and methods. Anyway, we'll see about all that when the book is actually done.

I always freaking forget about the library.  Thing is huge and 2 avenues away from my office, but I always forget that the resource is available to me.  They should put it on the Internet.

They do. At least mine does. I can log in with my library card, search its catalog, request books either from its shelves or borrowed from other libraries. I can also access many the University of Georgia's online databases and use its subscriptions to online periodicals.

What a country!

In Soviet Russia, card catalog read you!

Oh, you cut ups.

I've never really liked working at libraries, unfortunately. Too quiet. And carrels do not appear to be an option at NYPL. I've got a Columbia library card through my wife, so I could look into that.

I am definitely ready to finish this book, but the digital book problem is a particular pet peeve. The research process isn't actually so bad and certainly far easier than it was only a few years ago, but it drives me crazy because it could be so much better than it is. No one benefits by the current limitations--not Google, which would like to see some fruit from its prodigious scanning work; not the authors or publishers, who earn nothing from out-of-print books; and certainly not the readers. The authors who oppose it, and the judge who ruled against the Author Guild's attempt at a settlement are living in a world that no longer exists, and the rest of suffer for their recalcitrance.

To me, the main issue is not copyright longevity, although I agree with you on that, but the inflexibility of the copyright laws to permit mass digitization of out-of-print copyrighted material. It's not just 1928 that I need but out-of-print books all the way up through the 1990s.

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