Publishing books is itself a strange experience. Your relationship with a book in progress is intensely intimate while you’re writing it–it’s always on your mind. But once it goes to the publisher, you pretty much lose control of the whole process. Sometimes people make the analogy to being a parent–the book grows up, it graduates, and out into the world it goes. But your kids don’t have your name on their spine, and books aren’t autonomous actors.
It may be that the book seems odd to the author because the usual process of commodity fetishism doesn’t work. Neighbors see the book sitting conspicuously near the front door, where I’ve casually left it, and are impressed; it just appeared! I buy commodities like that all the time: they appear in the store, they look cool, I buy them. But I can’t do that with the my book–I can’t square the object with the years of labor required to produce it.
Dan Cohen suggested that back when you typed your manuscript, or had someone type it, you ended up with a big pile of paper, a sort of primitive, missing-link relative of the book itself. The stack of paper was related to the book like a vestigial limb on a whale. A printed book was a vast improvement over a pile of numbered pages: you couldn’t lose it or have it blow away or fall to the foor and get out of order. The progression that went “idea — pile of pages — book” made sense. But a modern book might never leave your computer screen before it shows up in print. The transition is jarring.
The physical book – The Aporetic. Well, first of all, congratulations to Mike! And second, I resonate with some but not all of this. For me the really strange thing about writing and publishing a book is that I’ve never gotten the feeling of closure, of completion, that I always expected I would get and somehow still expect to get, even though I ought to know better now.
When are you “done” with a book? You feel done-in-a-way when you complete the first full draft, then done-in-another-way when you send it to the publisher. But that’s when a lot of important stuff is just getting started. You get editorial suggestions that you respond to, usually by making revisions; then you get a copy-edited version that you have to go over, making further changes; then you get a designed and typeset version that looks pretty much like what the final version will look like, to which you are allowed to make only very minor changes, like correcting spelling errors that got missed in earlier pass-throughs. Around this time you might get a bound galley, the version that’s going out to reviewers. Finally, the book itself arrives in the mail. And you’re done! Finally, it’s done!
Well, sort of. If you’ve written more than one book, you know that there will still be errors: factual mistakes, grammatical infelicities, and the like — but also perhaps judgments you wish you hadn’t made and would like the chance to revisit. Some writers read their books as soon as they arrive, but I’m not one of them: it takes me about five years before I can bear to look at a book I’ve written, in part because I ready to think about other things, but in part because I don’t want to face all the things that I wish I could fix.
When I finally do have to face those errors and poor judgments, I can’t help thinking of a second, revised edition somewhere down the line — even when I know that that’s highly unlikely or simply impossible. I turn over in my mind the possibilities, the changes I would certainly make, the ones I might or might not make. The book’s still a living, developing thing in my mind. As a character in one of my favorite novels, Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day, says, “Nothing’s over. Ever.”