by Mark Vellend
This post appears concurrently on Dynamic Ecology.
I was not at the ESA meeting this year, but a handful of advance copies of my book, The Theory of Ecological Communities, were, and Margaret Kosmala was kind enough to send me a photo of the first buyers. I’d like to be able to play it cool and say this was just another ho-hum moment in the life of a scientist, but it wasn’t. I stared at the photo for a good while with a huge smile on my face. Maybe that was just because smiling is contagious and it was instinctual to smile back at the two people smiling at me through the screen. But there was also a sense of deep gratification. Following in the footsteps of some of my scientific heroes, my name was on the cover of a green and yellow book, the book was now born, and at least two people other than my Mom and Dad were willing to pay money for it. Success!
Writing a book is a teeny bit like having a child, but also not like it at all. The similarities: long gestation period, intense anticipation for its arrival, major investment in its success, worry about its uncertain future, and sometimes wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into. The differences: I (gender: male) actually did most of the work this time getting it to parturition, books are decidedly precocial (no diapers, bottles, tantrums, lunch boxes, or swimming lessons), I’m not sure anything I do now will influence its future, and although one might say the journey was difficult at times (f*$%ing index!), it’s not even in the same universe…I’ll just stop there instead of pretending that words can do justice to the difference on this point (just received stink eye from across the room). I guess I’m just trying to say that there’s a bit of emotion involved.
This post is the last (I think) in a short series based on thoughts that grew out of the process of writing the book. The others (here, here, and here) focused largely on scientific issues that flowed directly out of the contents of the book. In addition to the little story and handful of thoughts above, I figured I’d now step back from the content of the book, and share some thoughts on writing books in general. (Pretty thin cover story for shamelessly advertising a just-released book now available from amazon.com, I know.) Before diving into this project, I had a short-lived but intense bout of wondering why anyone would write a really long document that people need to pay for in an age when nobody reads anything they can’t download for free. Now I can think of several reasons:
(1) The premise of my doubt isn’t actually true. Many ecologists do value in-depth treatments of broad topics (I certainly do) and many even value the physical book they can hold in their hands. Long live books.
(2) A contract focuses the mind. Had I decided to just write the book as some kind of online wiki (an idea at one point), I’m not sure I would have had the discipline to invest as much as I did in making it a coherent whole. A contract, timelines, formal guidelines, an encouraging editor, and the happy thought of holding a physical book in my hand one day almost certainly helped the book become a better scientific contribution than it otherwise would have been.
(3) Books endure for longer than papers. I have no evidence to support that claim, but when I think of the reference sections of my own papers, I’m pretty sure the book:paper ratio increases as you go back in time. Even if the ideas in it become obsolete, a book endures as an historical signpost, defining the state of the field at a particular point in time, in a way that papers rarely do (in my opinion). Even if scientists have no use for my book in 50 years, I can imagine historians of ecology finding it useful from time to time, long after I’m dead and gone. (Why anyone should care about the fate their writings after they’re dead and gone is an interesting existential question, but I’m happy enough to accept most of us just do seem to care.)
(4) A book is everything that a tweet is not. We consume information in increasingly smaller and faster bits, and the smaller the bit, the less the author is likely to have reflected deeply on its content. I love reading books because I can feel the intellectual depth and reflection shine through, helping advance my own understanding and appreciation of the issues to a greater extent than you’d typically get from reading a stack of papers of the same length. None of which changes the fact that I still want you to tweet my book, without thinking about it for more than a second (go! do it now!). To make it even easier, here’s a tweet from Princeton University Press for you to re-tweet.
(5) Intellectual satisfaction. During no time since my Ph.D. did I dive as deeply and broadly into the literature as I did when writing the book. Thoughts swirled, ideas popped up, links were made between previously disparate things. It’s hard to separate the writing the book itself from being on sabbatical as the source of satisfaction derived from this, but it was refreshing either way.
As a final thought, if you’re reading this wondering if you should write a book, and you can find the time to do it*, I say go for it. I assume that the fact that you’re wondering means you already have an idea what the book would be about, which is an obvious pre-requisite. In all likelihood, it will be gratifying and stimulating for you, and your field of study will be better for it. If you read my book, please let me know what you think, positive or negative (but don’t be mean or nasty). I hope it sparks some interesting conversations.
* This certainly varies between people and types of books, but I’d say you want at least a year during which you can devote a big chunk of your efforts just to this one project.