I sympathize with Alan Lightman's account of the effect of book-writing
on family life. The only difference is that in my case, every
once in a while my wife will notice me briefly drifting into
contact with reality.
I showed a draft of my first trade book to a colleague for comments,
he predicted, accurately, "Your life will never be the
same." There is the wonderful perk of meeting people outside
the usual academic circuit -- from writers and journalists to
minor celebrities such as Noel Redding (drummer for the Jimi
Hendrix Experience) and Ken Dryden (goalie for the multiple-Stanley-cup-winning
Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s). But there is also the adoption
of an entirely new mindset about my area of research and about
why we in the academy do what we do.
think of writing trade books not just as "popularizing
science" (which many academics equate with dumbing down),
but as forcing me to take a bird's eye view of my field. Academic
research, according to the cliché, is the attempt to
learn more and more about less and less until you know everything
about nothing. Presenting one's field to an audience of non-specialists
is a way to reverse this progression (though one hopes, not
by learning less and less about more and more until you know
nothing about everything). It forces one to remember a field's
proudest accomplishments -- the ones we often forget about in
graduate teaching because they are no longer controversial and
hence become part of the banal conventional wisdom. It forces
one to organize hodgepodges, to consolidate cottage industries.
also forces one to question basic assumptions. Having to explain
an idea in plain English to someone with no stake in the matter
is an excellent screen for incoherent or contradictory ideas
that somehow have entrenched themselves in a field. Most teachers
have had the experience of realizing part way through a sentence
that the theory they are in the midst of explaining makes no
sense. One sweats, one pads the sentence with fillers, buying
time to figure out how to repair the theory or offer some alternative,
and then, as the full stop approaches, one speaks quickly and
indistinctly and nonchalantly hoping the students won't pay
attention, all the while praying that no hand shoots up to request
a clarification (and if it does, resisting the temptation to
blow it off with the suggestion that it is a stupid question).
That kind of epiphany happens even more often when explaining
a field to a general audience.
have found that the habits necessary for writing for a general
audience - putting issues in larger perspective, spelling out
background assumptions, writing in a direct, concrete style
- are just as useful in academic writing as in popular writing.
I no longer maintain a sharp distinction between the two styles.
My most recent book, Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language,
reports the results of my research for the past twelve years.
It is written as a trade book but I would not have done it all
that differently if I had written it as an academic book.
great benefit of writing for the public is being forced to explain
a puzzle that everyone cares about except, apparently, the academics
who ought to know the most about it. In the case of my main
area of expertise, language, I have been asked to write or speak
(usually on short notice) about topics such as Politically Correct
language, the Boston accent, Bill Clinton's testimony about
his sexual relationships, the future of English, and the brouhaha
about the word "niggardly." It isn't easy to find
discussions of such phenomena in the textbooks or journals,
but I enjoy piecing together an explanation from what is out
there, and when the explanation succeeds, it underlines the
soundness and usefulness of the field in general.
accessible to the general public has disadvantages at well.
And obvious one is time. Professors are supposed to divide their
professional time among teaching, research, and administration.
Writing and speaking to the press and public is a fourth major
responsibility - once the word gets out that a professor is
willing and able to communicate, reporters and radio stations
from all over the world will call asking for sound bites, commentary,
balance, and other bon mots. Since time is finite, something
else has to give: sleep, mostly, but also some of the time devoted
to the other responsibilities.
often ask me if another disadvantage to being a "public
intellectual" is a loss of esteem within one's own discipline,
the result of professional jealousy and an arrogance of the
academic that equates explaining with dumbing down. The example
always presented to me is Carl Sagan, star of Cosmos, the Johnny
Carson Show, and Parade Magazine, who was never elected to the
National Academy of Sciences. (The scientists who blackballed
him should realize the harm they have done to the public image
of science by painting us all as petty, arrogant snobs.)
answer is that even in the unlikely event that that popular
writing kept me out of the National Academy, it would be worth
it, but that in any case my experience has been different. I
don't know what people say behind my back, but the reaction
from most of my academic colleagues has been "Thanks for
writing the book; I gave one to my mother and she finally understands
what I do." (On the other hand, I have found that a tiny
number of academics, who might resent a writer for other reasons,
try to compensate for the wide reach of a popular book the don't
like by increasing their level of vituperation in proportion.)
I also get asked whether the administration looks down on popularization,
as some kind of shirking of professional duties. Far from it,
at least at MIT. All levels of the administration have encouraged
me to share ideas with the public. I am happy to acknowledge
President Chuck Vest in particular, who has unfailingly provided
one does decide to write for the public, how does one go about
it? Perhaps the best advice I received was from an editor who
discussed trade book writing with me well before I began to
write my first one. Worried about the obvious pitfall of writing
in too academic a manner, I self-deprecatingly suggested that
I had to learn how to reach truck drivers and chicken pluckers.
She corrected me: truck drivers and chicken pluckers don't buy
many books, and it's an arrogant academic stereotype to assume
that anyone who doesn't teach in a university must drive a truck
or pluck chickens. "You shouldn't be trying to speak to
truck drivers, she said; you should be trying to speak to your
college room-mate - someone who is as smart and as intellectual
as you are, but who happened to go into some other line of work
and does not know the jargon or background material." It
was good advice, extirpating any tendency I might have had to
condescend to the reader.
also has to decide to be positive about one's field and colleagues,
which does not come easy to most academics, especially those
in controversial fields. What do we do in our graduate seminars?
Pick a paper apart, to show how idiotic the author is, and then
do the same thing the next week, and the next, and so on. This
won't do with a general audience - they don't want to hear about
a bunch of wrong theories and bad experiments; they want to
learn what we really do know. And that requires the writer to
actually like something, publicly - a terrifying step for most
pitfall is to treat the writing of a trade book as some kind
of holiday from serious writing, or worse, as a quick way to
earn enough money for a new kitchen. Every year I see dozens
of really bad popular science books, which look like undergraduate
lectures written in a hurry in cutesy "motherese."
A decent trade book requires as much concentration, brainwork,
and sheer time as one's best research projects.
final thought about why I write for the public. One can think
about why we academics do what we do in two very different ways.
On one view, research results are passed from one academic to
another within a closed circle of specialists, with the public
occasionally seeing trickle-downs such as a new laser or a cure
for a disease. I have come to a different view, from seeing
how excited ordinary educated people are by the kinds of issues
we study - for many of them, the idea that one can get paid
for studying consciousness, or language and thought, is an inconceivable
educated people enjoy science for the same reason they enjoy
the opera or going to the Grand Canyon - they appreciate beauty
for its own sake. On this view research results are always worth
sharing with the public, practical applications or no. They
pay for the research with their tax dollars, and they have the
interest and the right to share in the sheer intellectual pleasure
of coming to know how things work. I think it is refreshing
to think of the role of an academic as spreading information
not just to colleagues and 18-to-21-year olds but to human beings