In talking about my new book Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine, everyone seems to want to know about the writing and research process. Writing a book can seem like some kind of miracle. It can also seem like some tortuously difficult endeavor that is hard to fully comprehend and explain to those who haven’t done it. It’s a little bit of both.
As a historian, the work of writing a book really breaks down into two parts: researching and writing. I take a lot of notes. How many? Here’s my stack of typed notes:
There’s lots of highlighting by major themes for each chapter:
And scribbling of ideas on random slips of papers and folders as I come up with common themes, chapter ideas, questions, possible ways to phrase things:
That stack, with all its highlights and scribblings, becomes a book – slowly, painfully slowly – after lots and lots and lots of editing. The first draft often bears little, if any, resemblance to the printed product. I rewrote every chapter more times than I can even recall. The miraculous part of book writing may be that something coherent even emerges in the end. But it does, if you stick with it.
It’s been a busy week here at Marketplace of the Marvelous world headquarters (aka my treadmill desk in the guest room). My new book hit bookstores last Tuesday. I’ve been giving interviews and had my launch at A Room Of One’s Own in Madison Thursday. And perhaps most exciting of all, a section of the book on phrenology was excerpted in The Atlantic – read it here.
I love sharing this quirky medical history. There’s much more to come so stay tuned.
The conclusion of Peter Ackroyd’s The History of England Volume I: Foundation* includes a sentence I can’t stop thinking about: “The writing of history is often another way of defining chaos.” He goes on to say how convenience, circumstance, misjudgments, and errors play a large part “in what we are pleased to call the ‘development’ of institutions.”
None of this should come as any surprise. History is the story of people and who among us has not had a life of turmoil and coincidence (and if you have, I don’t want to hear from you)? Opinions change, even the most hardened beliefs transform or are discredited, everything is in a constant state of transition even if it sometimes seems just the opposite. It really is chaos with the historian struggling to piece together and interprete a whole mess of personalities into some kind of narrative that makes sense and gives us a sense of continuity and identity and belonging.
Ackroyd’s use of the word ‘pleased’ particularly pleases me because history can all seem so fated, so predetermined in hindsight as though people in the past were any different than people today. It’s easy to forget that, though. I think it’s why many people don’t (or think they don’t) like history (You do! Trust me!). Life was just as confusing and frustrating and overwhelming and wonderful 1000 years ago as today. History is the stories of people just like you and me.
I’m in the midst of deciding what “chaos” I want to take on as my next book project. It all feels so big and daunting right now with so many voices shouting for attention and roads of unknown possibilities. But it’s also exciting, like the throws of a new relationship. I’ll let you know what I find.
* This was a last minute “I have pounds to spare” purchase at the Heathrow airport before a flight home that turned out to be a remarkable page turner. I’ve had great luck with my hasty book buying (another great airport purchase was Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World that kept me from fully enjoying all of the entertainment options on offer in our business class “pods” because I couldn’t stop reading it), which I’d like to attribute to my good taste but is really the acumen of the store’s book buyer.