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September 13, 2010

Barnacled Books

I had floated the sailboat into the boat-lift slings, stepped off the bow onto terra firma and now watched as the operator hoisted the boat the rest of the distance upward.

It was a moment of revelation.

On the port side of the keel and hull there were two thriving colonies of barnacles and muscles. Each colony was a least twelve inches across and bulked out two to three inches. No wonder the boat never seemed to be moving at top speed over the summer. The sluggishness I’d attributed to the vagaries of current was in fact the mischief of these unwanted stowaways (some of whom had traveled to Canada and back with no passport).

This was the price I’d paid for economizing. I’d deferred a haul-out and bottom maintenance in the spring because I knew the marina would haul me out for free in September so they could reconstruct the docks. But perhaps it was a small price to pay. The barnacles came off with a couple scrapes of a blade, and some sanding would take care of the remaining damage. (But how these creatures had found just those spots of thinness in the protective coat of bottom paint to latch hold of the hull is one of the wonders of marine life.) And all I really lost was the pleasure of maybe a knot more in speed. Well, I don’t race the boat, though my pride did suffer once or twice when I was overtaken by a lesser craft.

Now there’s a parable in this for writing and publishing. Let me work this from a couple of angles. First, from an angle that directly intersects with my desk—big projects. For nearly twenty-five years I’ve always had at least one, and usually more than one, big reference-book project underway. Reference books involve many moving parts, and so they are more complicated than single-author works by orders of magnitude. They require regular maintenance. And when that’s deferred (whether by having too many projects or by diversions or by just old-fashioned inattention), the whole thing can feel like it’s bogged down, plodding along and not moving toward its destination. Interestingly enough, this sensation of being bogged down can be as much in the editor’s head as in reality. But that’s another topic. Often the whole craft just needs to be hauled out of the water for some deferred “bottom” maintenance, relaunched, and she’ll move along quite well.

Second, there is the book manuscript that keeps growing by accretion, and over time becomes unwieldy. As an author, you want to keep adding something, if not to the running text itself, then to the notes or addenda or figures or tables. Soon, the originally conceived book—a sleek hull of a sailing craft, designed to cut through the water of the mind—is barnacled with extras that are getting a free ride off the main idea. And while they satisfy the anxiety of the author—“I don’t want to leave anything out!” “The critics will pan me if I don’t do this!”—they impede the effectiveness of the book by giving readers more than they want or need.

Often enough this happens when an academic author is writing for a broader audience. And I understand this motivation very well—the more I know about a subject, the more agonizing it is to pare it down to its essential elements. But there comes a time when adding stuff back into the book is actually growing barnacles on the hull, at least so far as most readers are concerned. Knowing your audience and exercising self-restraint (oh, and maybe listening to your editor!) are the keys to success.

Well, the boat will be out of the water for a few months, and I’ve got some work to do on its hull. But I enjoy that. And I also have some work to do on some project hulls sitting on my desk. I think I’ll enjoy that too—or at least the results! Much of my work is in fact just scraping and sanding and painting. Though sometimes it gets deferred.

Posted by Dan Reid at September 13, 2010 1:15 PM Bookmark and Share

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