in reflecting

The Shape of Thought

I mentioned yesterday that I’ve been thinking about the next Big Project. I’ve been circling it for a while, trying to figure out what several of the various things I’ve written recently have to do with one another. And over the last week, I think I’ve at least started to get it; I’m starting to develop a sense of the overall shape of the thing.

But here’s the problem, or at least the surprise: that shape, as it’s appearing to me right now, is awfully traditional. A Book. I’m not positive that the thing is best produced or conveyed that way, but that’s the shape that’s in my head.

Now that I write that last sentence, it occurs to me that I may mean it more literally than I originally thought. The shape of the book is really in my head, a form that molds thought even as it occurs.1 I have no illusion that this is natural, and I’m pretty sure that this shape can be changed. But it is a sign of how deeply the structures of book culture are ingrained in all of the ways that I think: after ten years of blogging, after years of research and writing about the potentials that other forms of scholarly communication might take, I still reflexively sketch out book projects in my head.

Of course, calling this a book only really implies that it’s a predominantly text-based long-form argument. It doesn’t necessarily call for print. And it doesn’t necessarily call for it to be produced in the traditional way — off-stage, in seclusion, only to be shared (except within carefully controlled circles) when finished.

My hope is that I’ll be able to produce this thing in public, whether here or elsewhere, and perhaps as I work its shape might evolve from the book prototype in my head into something a bit more dynamic and fluid. Or perhaps it will turn out that this thing really is best suited to book-like form. I just want to be sure that I’m open to the possibilities, that I’m not defaulting to the shape I know because I know it.

  1. I am now unavoidably thinking about those old Play-Doh toys that allowed you to extrude various shapes of goo by pushing the stuff through a crank-driven mold that bore an awful lot of resemblance to a meat grinder. I would prefer not to have one of those in my head, I think.

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  1. I’m working with a few scholars on non-book, digital scholarship projects where a book would not suffice and so they’re turning to other forms to meet the needs/goals of the intended work. In two instances, a book is the argument wanted, but these “books” would need to be heavily connected to previously inaccessible materials and so the argument requires building and curating an archive along with the traditional long-form, text-based argument. So, for these two scholarst, it makes the most sense to envision their projects as curated digital archives and digital scholarship projects that will be published first, with book-like versions coming as secondary forms.

    Right now, without knowing what your book might be about, I’m interested in your process to think through the argument and select the form. I think seeing this thinking and working through would be of interest and useful for other scholars who are grappling with the same sorts of concerns.