Meme Weaver: The author tries—and fails—to cash in on a big idea

Marshall Poe in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_07 Oct. 30 11.50When I was young I wanted to write a challenging book of ideas. I had in mind the kind of “deep” book that public intellectuals of the 1950s and ’60s wrote: The Lonely Crowd, The One-Dimensional Man, The End of Ideology. Intellectuals talked seriously about them in magical places like New York and San Francisco, places I—being in Kansas—knew nothing about. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have anything deep to say. So I did what most intellectually ambitious young Americans do. I went to graduate school. I found nothing deep to say there. Instead, I learned to do research and write clearly. In the years that followed, I wrote books, but not deep books of ideas. My books were focused, well-documented demonstrations of some minor fact about the world. They added to what we know. That’s something.

Yet I still hungered to write a book of ideas. I knew I wouldn’t ever do so in academia. So after about a decade of teaching at a big university you’ve probably heard of, I left to work in a staff position at a big magazine you’ve probably heard of. In my mind, this magazine stood at the pinnacle of American intellectual life. I didn’t think working at the big magazine would make me a public intellectual. I wasn’t hired as a writer; I was hired as a researcher. I cannot say, however, that I didn’t want to see my name in the big magazine.

In 2005, Wikipedia was taking off. I thought its history might be interesting. So I wrote a piece on spec about the founding of Wikipedia. The editors at the big magazine liked it, and they published it in the summer of 2006. Around the time my Wikipedia article appeared in the big magazine, another Wikipedia piece appeared in another big magazine. Wikipedia was suddenly, as Tina Brown says, “v. hot.” This was my chance to write a book of ideas—not that I had any good ideas to write about. I sent an e-mail to a literary agent picked at random, asking whether I could write a book about Wikipedia-style collaboration on the Internet. I got a call within minutes. The nice fellow at the other end of the line (who, incidentally, is still my agent) said he’d read my article. I could get a book deal with a big New York trade publisher.

More here. [Thanks to Thomas Wells.]

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