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July 10, 2006

My Second Chapter

You write, you struggle, you write, and eventually you make your way to the end of a chapter. It feels good, for a moment. Then it is time to go back and look over what you have produced.

Reached that point on Sunday with my second chapter -- on some wonderful and precocious disbelievers in Egypt, India, Greece, China and among the Hebrews. Printed it out. Read the chapter on a train. It was only then -- after having been working on this stuff for a couple of months -- that I realized something: It's a bit slow. Thick with ideas and facts. Thin on tales of interesting people. Tales of interesting people, to be sure, are not that easy to come by when those folks lived two or three thousand-years ago. But still. This is supposed to be a lean, concise, narrative history. Not a tome. Not exhaustive. So I'm pruning the exposition: Maybe you don't really need to know that Lokayata is another name used for the Carvaka -- the long-lived Indian materialist sect ("There is no world other than this"). And I'm trying to beef up the tales -- tales that illustrate the ideas.

Of course, the next step will be actually showing it to someone besides the guy who wrote it.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at July 10, 2006 4:49 PM


It's a credit to your skills that you can see the weaknesses so early in the writing process. Congratulations on making it through the first draft of the second chapter.

Posted by: K.G. Schneider at July 10, 2006 10:53 PM

Will you be showing any of it here?

Posted by: ben vershbow at July 10, 2006 11:29 PM

Having never corresponded on a blog before, I'm curious, actually, to know whether having one *as you write a book* is making it easier/harder; and/or more/less interesting, let alone more (i assume a goal) erudite? I assume it's just a helluva lot more grief and work that you'd be better off w/out, despite how engaging it may be for the rest of us ?

Posted by: JM at July 11, 2006 12:00 AM

important question, in that this is an experiment, originated by Institute for the Future of the Book.
here is a very quick response:
think it is good in that I get valuable ideas and feedback, in that it forces me to keep vaguely current with ideas in the field. almost as if I had a gang of like-minded folk with whom to hang out most evenings. bad in so far as it takes time, distracts. think I've gotten better at limiting that time. hope it doesn't show.
is fun. though when you are polishing sentences and worrying about citations much of the day and night, even taking out the garbage seems fun.

Posted by: mitch at July 11, 2006 2:01 AM

I thought citations were blasé in journalism nowadays. Speaking of Ann Coulter, hasn't she done more for the anti-religion forces than any current pop-icon? Pushing a hyperbolic hate filled version of politics/religion only resonates with the already dead, at the same time awakening the sleeping uninvolved. I think she should get the Atheist of The Year award.

Who do you and your publisher see as buyers? The wider the audience, the less of a textbook it must be. Shooting in the dark and not having read anything I think your aim of making it more stories of individuals is spot on (been watching Wimbledon). Readers love conflict so the stories of the pain and suffering these isolated thinkers endured appeals to our natural blood lust. Probably the best book of history told through stories is, yikes, the Bible. If you take out all of the killing and betrayal all you have is begats.

You can right the wrongs of centuries of bottled up rationality by telling the stories of a few of the most courageous free thinkers. Less is more.

Posted by: Jay Saul at July 11, 2006 10:32 AM

Too much stock-putting in narrative going on for my taste... realize I'm in the minority. Your approach should guarantee you some time on C-Span and NPR book-shows; but if you're lucky, some offbeat director (Lars von Trier, let's say) will decide it's a worthy target of cinematic deconstruction and turn it into a movie starring Johnny Depp ?

Posted by: JM at July 11, 2006 12:18 PM

as Charles Bradlaugh I see Tim Robbins!

no, no extended movie-like narrative (though someone should look at the Bradlaugh story or that of Ernestine Rose). But, yes, Bible-like little tales. Not textbooky. Wants to be smart and fun to read. Best example on this blog, this little anecdote 'bout Shelley, which will likely end up in the prologue:

Posted by: mitch at July 11, 2006 1:39 PM

And, Ben, been reluctant to show much of the book here, as you know. Fear of giving away what later I will want to sell, of course. Maybe misplaced. Don't know. Could put up a page that I believe to be too dull as an example -- but that would make for a dull blog. Shouldn't I worry about giving away too much of my good stuff?

Posted by: mitch at July 11, 2006 1:45 PM

C_Span and NPR??? NO NO!! The Colbert Report!

Posted by: Jay Saul at July 11, 2006 2:35 PM

Of course, you're right, JayS: much rather see Mitch being interviewed by Jon Stewart. That would be something worthwhile. He could deconstruct the narratives pretty well, I'm sure ;) ... but Mitch, try to let go of that capitalistic urge. You don't want to be on the same side as John Updike in that really pitiful lament a couple weeks ago about the end of the author, do you ? (as if Barthes and Foucault hadn't already done that work)

Posted by: JM at July 11, 2006 4:24 PM


There's actually substantial evidence to suggest that giving away some or all of a book online increases print sales. Cory Doctorow, Yochai Benkler and Eric Von Hippel are some well-known examples of this. Moreover, if you share your book, it will become more findable on the info-glutted web. Amazon lets you browse books online, as does Google now. Even the New York Times is publishing first chapters on its website (see here and then scroll down).

On the GAM3R 7H30RY site (the Institute's other networked book project), this is one of the FAQs:

Why give the book away free if you want to sell it later?

The answer?

It's an experiment to test the theory that if you make a gift out of something people feel better disposed towards it.

Posted by: ben vershbow at July 17, 2006 10:10 AM

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