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Why Write Books?

Today's post is from Jeremy Adam Smith, senior editor of Greater Good magazine and author of The Daddy Shift, forthcoming from Beacon Press in spring 2009. He blogs about the politics of parenting at Daddy Dialectic.

Book Cover for The Daddy Shift, links to Beacon Press page for bookOne night at dinner a cynical relative challenged me on my choice of career: Why bother to write books and articles? We were talking about my current project, on the communities that straight and queer parents build together. He asked: Whose mind do you hope to change? Will it make any difference? Who reads books these days, anyway? They were thinking especially of hardcore members of the religious right, who will never read a book like that, and if they do, they will likely reject what it has to say out of hand.

These were good questions. I surprised myself by having some answers. My first thought is that, on the most personal level, none of that matters. I like to tell stories and, for a combination of personal and political reasons, this is the story I want to tell right now. If two people want to hear the story, I'm happy with that. If two hundred thousand want to hear it, even better.

How many I reach is, of course, partially a function of how good a job I do, along with timing, marketing, and many other factors. And I also get existential satisfaction out of the job, because it is a job, and not a well-paying one; still, the process of putting words together and striving to improve my skills gives me pleasure, albeit of the tortured sort. Why, I'm not sure.

Beyond those personal reasons, however, there are people out there who readily agree with me but who need to hear these stories told to them, so that they can think through problems with another mind (as I have many times, through the medium of books) and so that they can feel connected to something larger than themselves.

It's also the case that there are people out there who might disagree with what I have to say, but who are open to reflection, which is what the writer tries to provoke in a reader. In nonfiction, we might aim to actually change the reader's mind, but reflection might be the worthier and more realistic goal. At best, persuasion is a happy accident; if the right book or article comes along at the right moment in a person's life, mental mountains can move. I have been persuaded by books; for example, I think the one-two punch of Joe Haldeman's The Forever War and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, both read when I was thirteen, helped nudge me from violence-obsessed pre-pubescence to antiwar adolescence. How glorious for those authors, to change the mind of one 13-year-old kid in Saginaw, MI. That's a hard thing to do.

Then there's the question of who reads serious nonfiction these days, and if it matters. On the level of the printed word, I actually agree that it doesn't matter as much as it did in the past. But—and this not a small point—books today are often entrees into a much larger cultural conversation. Book authors speak, they go on TV, they're interviewed on the radio; and through those media they can reach millions of people. And again, they might not be able to persuade the un-persuadable, but they can certainly speak somebody's truth to power and articulate questions or answers that people might have been thinking or feeling but unable to say themselves; and thus, maybe, play a role in helping their voices come together.

The bottom line might be that I write and edit books because I enjoy reading. We write the books we want to read, and through the writing I discover people out there who are searching for many of the same things I am. That's the paradox of both reading and writing: we read and write alone but both activities join us with people we don't even know.