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Re: Writing A Book Is Nonesense

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This is a reply to Ton Zijlstra’s Writing A Book Is Nonesense. I felt compelled to ask for a clarification from Ton’s “I find that I feel writing a non-fiction subject oriented book is nonsense for non-academics.”. I’m sorry Ton, but I have to agree with your spouse here: it is indeed a very arrogant stance towards authors.

Why should you read a non-fiction book? Sure, many books are, as you nicely put it, “anecdotal padding around a core idea that would fit on the backflap”. But that doesn’t have to mean that (1) those books, even with their 90% of meaningless content, are useless by themselves. Spreading the core message by means of a book is still a powerful way to reach many people compared to an obscure blog or short but fast disappearing news article, and (2), that all books are suffering from this disease.

For example, Getting Things Done, which would perfectly match your remark “I had this great project I enormously enjoyed doing” and anointing it as the new truth, “Organise all your projects like this, it’s a universal method!”. Countless of online GTD summaries do a better job at explaining the system than the book itself. Does that mean it’s useless? Not really. Without it, wouldn’t the summaries never come to existence? Many business-like books (Management 3.0, various boring agile works) can be skimmed and mined for interesting findings (who says you have to read everything?), that are there, albeit indeed perhaps sometimes deeply hidden.

Why would authors having “not much to say” bother going through the very painful and slow process of writing a few drafts, deleting and reworking things, working with an editor, promoting the work, etc? Sure, if we take a quick glance at the entirety of books available, many of them are junk. The same is true in any other publishing platform. Just open an online game store to find out. Some of those forgettable entries are diamonds in the rough.

You ask: “why should you read anecdotal non-fiction”? I reply: why shouldn’t you read it? Findings and evidence based on research is interesting, but often boring. I read to be inspired. I read to be in awe, to feel respect for a craft, for the effort people put in. I read to escape the real world, to fantasize about a journey. I read to feel and figure out how to live. I also read to learn new things, but in hindsight, that’s everything but the foremost reason. You seem to be only focused on the last reason, which sounds like you misunderstand the reason why books are there in the first place.

Every single person has something interesting to say. Let me ask you this. Why do you publish on your blog? Did you forget that, in the margin of your blog, it states Read my book! (How To Unconference Your Birthday)? Whoops.

I make exceptions for academic books, explaining or introducing a field or actual research and their popular science counterparts, and for non-subject non-fiction, that e.g. describes a journey.

Another grave mistake. As an academic myself, I can safely say that most books written by academics are lovingly erudite (read: dry!) and long-winded. They have as much or as little to say as anyone else. I get that as soon as the author’s bio contains “professor” on the backflap, it somehow magically becomes believable. What then, about Jiro Ono’s life he spent perfecting sushi for more than sixty years? I love reading cooking adventures. They’re devoid of hard evidence and sentences such as “research claims that”. So what? Or what about practical engineering guides/manuals?

I wrote my own bread baking adventure. Sure, it contains a part on the science of baking. But that’s because of my own personal interest, not because I think it was needed in such a book. I honestly think the first part, my personal fumblings and failures, is more interesting. I’m not a huge authority in the land of bread baking, I’ve never even owned my own bakery, so what gives me the right to speak/write? Because I personally felt I had something interesting to say. I wanted to write a book I’d love to read myself—not because of commercial interest. Other people seem to like it.

Just because Martin Heiddeger was a philosophy professor doesn’t mean we should take his ramblings for granted and ignore Marcus Aurelius' Meditations that were written in the trenches. Just because Vladimir Nabokov was a literary professor doesn’t mean we should ignore Stephen King’s On Writing advice and put Nabokov’s on a pedestal. That’s where critical thinking should come in.

If you read Irene Vallejo’s Papyrus (don’t worry, it’s an academic!), you’ll learn that books did not (only) originate as a way to preserve knowledge. Sometimes, knowledge is boring. And we’re not even talking about fiction yet.

There’s a lot of crap out there. That statement is true beyond the context of books. Sifting and decision-making while buying is up to you. To ignore everything but academic authors when it comes to non-fiction is just ridiculous.

tags icon book writing publishing

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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