Like a phoenix from the ashes?
Like a tired old man rising from his dining room table?
At 2:32 PM yesterday (four days after my April 30 deadline), I emailed the manuscript for my latest book, The Decline of the Individual: Reconciling Autonomy with Community, to my editor at Palgrave Macmillan. As their marketing wizards somehow gleaned, this is the third book in my "triptych" on the individual and society, following The Manipulation of Choice (on nudge) and The Illusion of Well-Being (on happiness policy), all written for popular readers. When I started the first book, I had no idea that I would generalize the argument in the second, much less broaden it even more in the third... but that's what I did.
In short, this book discusses what I see as the decline in respect for the individual in recent years, based on developments in psychology, neuroscience, economics, sociology, technology, business, politics, and law. All of these fields have, in different ways, contributed to doubts about individuals' cognitive competence and moral competence, which have led to a devaluation of the individual as considered by government, business, and ourselves, and the elevation in its place of the pursuit of collective interests without the traditional safeguards for the rights and dignity of individuals. To counter this, I suggest a conception of the person as "individual in essence, social in orientation," based on Kant's ethics (and introduced in my scholarly book Kantian Ethics and Economics). This way of thinking about individuals reinforces their cognitive and moral competency and replaces the specter of "radical individualism" with a more nuanced combination of individuality and sociality, all intended to restore the appropriate balance between individual and social interests which has been upset in a recent years.
Ha, I said "in short," didn't I?
It is a very difficult book to summarize in just a few words. It has been very hard these past months to explain to family, friends, and colleagues what this book is about, especially compared to its predecessors. With this one, I couldn't just say "it criticizes nudges" or "it questions happiness policy" — "it examines the decline of the individual" is a little more vague.
This book was also much harder to write and took much more out of me, and I've tried to figure out why.
1) In general, it was a harder argument to wrap my head around and organize in a way that is (hopefully) clear to the reader. It took a long time to feel I had a good handle on the flow of the book, especially because I do draw on a wide range of ideas that don't fit naturally with each other. Also, I hadn't written this argument elsewhere before, whereas with the last two books I had the chance to rehearse their general arguments in earlier works (albeit for different audiences). Parts of it existed in various forms in other books, articles, and blog posts of mine, but not together in anything resembling this book.
2) I wrote most of this book during the academic semester, whereas I only wrote, at the most, initial bits of my earlier books then. Granted, I didn't teach this semester, but I still chaired my department, which involves a lot of paperwork, meetings, and email, not to mention the occasional crisis. It was a relatively light semester in terms of meetings, and my extraordinary department staff was tremendously helpful with paperwork and crises, but nonetheless it did seem especially difficult to write most of this book (particularly this book) during the semester.
3) The writing process itself with this book was different. When I write books, especially those for popular audiences, usually I draft the book straight through from beginning to end, to maintain a narrative flow and consistent tone. The writing itself takes longer because I'm inserting quotes and references, and polishing prose as I go, but when it's done it's pretty much done. With this book, however, I wrote the basic argument first, with little attention paid to language and almost no quotes or cites. On the second pass, I smoother out the language and inserted many quotes and references, which added 50% more words to the manuscript, and on the third pass I further massaged the language (and added a few more last-minute quotes and references).
This was a strange way to work, and I'm not sure I would do it again. In general, I'm not a "get the words down and make them pretty later" kind of writer, but with this book I came closer to that method than with previous books. The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that I had to do this one the way I did. Because I didn't have the entire plan of the argument settled from day one, I had to explore that aspect of the book first, constructing the framework and making sure it stood on its own before I could install the plumbing, electricity, and so on. When I got to the second stage, I went deep into the various fields I draw on to flesh out each section and chapter, which may have been too much to do in the first stage when I was trying to focus on the basic structure of the entire argument. Finally, the multiple passes enabled me to tie the material from the different areas together better than I might have been able to if I'd followed my normal linear approach.
4) I also used my time differently with this book. With my previous ones, I would spend most of my free time on the current project, working on it around classes, meetings, or time with the kids. But as I explained in my last update, for the first two and a half months I worked on this book, I devoted about two hours each morning to it, and then would do other things (or sometimes nothing) the rest of the day. It wasn't until April that I devoted all my free time to the book, taking advantage of a week and a half of spring break in the middle and a lighter-than-usual meeting schedule the rest of the month. It did help to be immersed in the book for the final month, as I had been with the earlier books; I never really felt I was writing a book until then, but merely working on a book, if that makes sense. I say that in full realization that many writers are forced to work that way and they manage to produce fantastic work; for that they have my eternal admiration and respect, because I found it very difficult to re-engage with the book each time I returned to it after so long.
5) Finally, I didn't start a book journal until the end of March when I started the second stage (major editing). It definitely would have helped me stayed engaged if I made an effort to reflect on my daily progress, especially when I spent so little time (relatively speaking) on the book each day with so much time in between.
So what's next? Even though I cleared my plate at the end of March to devote April to finishing the book, I did put off a lot of things that came in the last month (making time only for things that needed to be done right away, such as writing letters of recommendation and editing timely blog posts). That means I have some things to catch up on, such as writing referee reports, working on edited books, and end-of-the-semester work at school, before I start my next book in June, a return to superheroes and philosophy, which I plan to write this summer in my usual fashion. The comics have been read, the notes have been taken and organized, and the outline has been drawn up and fleshed out, so all that remains is to think of the words and put them in the right order.
Piece of cake... right?