January 9, 2014
Walter Isaacson doesn’t want to write his new book
by Sal Robinson
Writing a book is hard work. First of all, you have to write every single word and this tends to take forever, especially if you find that some of those words, when you read them over, are terrible.
Second, you have to do it alone, and that just gets so … so … lonesome after a while, especially after you’ve looked up from the screen and realized you’re only on word 715 of your planned 60,000+ word book.
Walter Isaacson, author of many books (among them Steve Jobs, Einstein: His Life and Universe, and Benjamin Franklin: An American Life), has had enough of it, and he’s decided to try something different for his new book, which has been described as “a narrative about the people who helped to create the most important innovations of the digital age.”
As he goes along, Isaacson is posting excerpts from the book on LiveJournal, Scribd, and Medium, and asking for readers to weigh in on it. And weigh in they have. According to a Christian Science Monitor article by Husna Haq:
Some 18,000 people read one post on Medium and Isaacson has received hundreds of comments and e-mails from the different websites, including “close to 200 suggestions that I would consider substantive and useful,” he told NPR.
Opening up the conventional boundaries of a book for comments—essentially, making a digital space for everyone’s margin notes—has been tried before. Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s 2011 book on scholarly publishing, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, is a pointed and notable example. Eventually published by NYU Press, Fitzpatrick initially put up the entire book in a fairly finished form on Media Commons Press, where anyone could comment on it.
What distinguished this from simply posting a big doc on a personal website was that Fitzpatrick and Media Commons used CommentPress, a WordPress feature that allowed comments to be left on each section (instead of in an unwieldy comment thread at the end), which made possible a structured exchange between Fitzpatrick and her readers. And then she incorporated their feedback into the final version of the book.
There have also been similarly structured reading experiments on books post-publication. Sometimes, long post-. The Golden Notebook Project opened up Doris Lessing’s 1962 novel to comments from a select group of seven readers for a period of about 6 weeks in 2008, during which the readers posted in the margin of the text of the book. There were heated discussions (still viewable here) about race, sex, gender relations, and the development of characters and plot between the readers, who were all writers themselves, among them Helen Oyeyemi and Laura Kipnis. The Golden Notebook Project came out of the Institute for the Future of the Book, which was also responsible for earlier experiments like McKenzie Wark’s 2006 Gamer Theory.
But with Isaacson’s book, there’s a new and interesting wrinkle to the experiment, which is that many of the people that he’s writing about are still alive and furthermore, probably very interested in shaping — or at least, seeing in advance and discussing — how their contributions and the contributions of others are represented in what will no doubt be a widely read pop history of the digital era.
Case in point: Steward Brand, the editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, who responded to a chapter about him that Isaacson put up on Medium in detail, correcting Isaacson on points like the exact amount of LSD Brand did one day in 1966, the nature of the offerings in the first issue of the catalog, and the significance (or insignificance, according to Brand) of slogans like “power to the people” and the New Left to the early days of personal computing.
As a reader, it’s incredibly refreshing to see Brand’s corrections steering Isaacson’s pretty breezy account to, hopefully, a more nuanced understanding of the way different individuals participated in and felt about this period. Pop histories tend make my reader-editor’s fingers itch, because I can feel that complexity is being sacrificed, but I usually don’t know enough about the subject to know exactly where and how.
But, at the same time, maybe I should be worried? After all, this innovative method Isaacson’s testing out is supposed to make my job obsolete, or so says Husna Haq in the CSM article, wondering “Is crowdsourcing the future of book editing?” Should I be preparing my arguments for the importance of the role of the editor as a guiding intelligence, with long experience in shaping and honing a work towards its best imaginable form (or just stealing somebody else’s — that also sounds good)?
Isaacson himself thinks the process has limits — one of those limits being Isaacson’s willingness to share the profits from this work with the people doing it. From an article in Bloomberg Businessweek by Joshua Brustein:
All this collaboration is useful, says Isaacson, but it won’t change the final form of the book much. While he says he’s interested in the idea of a Wikipedia-esque form of collaborative writing, he’s not operating a democracy. “You can take this too far,” he says. “There has to be someone in charge.”
In other words, company’s appreciated on the long, lonely slog of making sense of events and individuals, and knitting it all together into a coherent narrative … but not too much.
Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.