Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The book journal, part one: why write?

Over the next few months I'll publicly track my progress conceiving, pitching and writing the book that I need in order to justify my job. No one has said that publishing a third book is mandatory, but ongoing publishing is part of my personal value system. It has always been my firm belief that teachers should be current practitioners, and I bristle (or become outright hostile) when I hear ignoramuses spout the line "Those that can't, teach." Ahem. Some of the finest practitioners I know in various fields also teach, and do so wonderfully. Teaching is an honor, and it should be the fruit of a thriving career, not the refuge of a failing one. Now my goal is to publish a third book in order to justify this great privilege.

Thrashing about like this in public feels a bit odd, given that I don't even have a contract yet, but in another sense it is quite freeing. Public accountability is an important part of productivity, at least for me, and many of the authors who come to Booklab also say that they want and need someone or some thing to answer to. A university tenure or full-professor-promotion committee can function as that taskmaster. But university life can also become a "velvet coffin," for once you pass a certain level of acceptability (publishing a couple of books, getting tenure, receiving the acknowledgement of peers), it's easy to put it on autopilot for the next twenty years.

Career autopilot is not what Booklab, or Georgetown for that matter, has ever been about. A global university that aims not just for relevance but for essential status in the 21st century requires active, publishing scholars. Publishing in this model becomes not merely a tool for getting tenure (ack, what a low bar!), but a means of participating in public intellectual life in a powerful and life-changing way for author and audience. As Sartre pointed out in his 1947 essay "Why Write" -- an essay I've taught undergraduates at Georgetown so many times I can almost recite it by heart -- the author requires a reader in order to exist. "Since the creation can find its fulfillment only in reading, since the artist must entrust to another the job of carrying out what he has begun, since it is only through the consciousness of the reader that he can regard himself as essential to his work, all literary work is an appeal" (emphasis added). In this sense both writing and reading are bound inextricably together in what he terms "the greatest act of pure freedom."

So I will celebrate pure Sartrean freedom on this blog by mapping a new book project, writing a proposal, and sending it to publishers, all in public. Onward.

No comments: