Nov

02

2011

Justin Taylor|12:00 am CT

Big-Idea Books vs. Books of Ideas

Marshall Poe writes about his lifelong dream to write a Big Idea book, got a contract to do so, and was asked to rewrite it to make it more commercial. But, he writes:

. . . I had no inner James Surowiecki, Malcolm Gladwell, or Chris Anderson. From my editor’s perspective, these were models, and rightly so. They made trade publishers a fortune. From my perspective, however, they were good writers who had spun big ideas into gold. I couldn’t write a big-idea book, because, as it turned out, I didn’t believe in big ideas. By my lights, they almost had to be wrong. Years of academic research taught me two things. First, reality is as complicated as it is, not as complicated as we want it to be. Some phenomena have an irreducible complexity that will defeat any big-idea effort at simplification. Detailed research has, not surprisingly, cast doubt on the reality of wise crowds, tipping points, and long tails. Second, most of the easy big questions about the way the world works have been answered. The questions that remain are really hard. Big ideas, then, can only reinvent the wheel or make magical claims.

So I forgot about big ideas and did what I was trained to do. I conducted research. I let the facts be my guide. My book contained no down-from-the-mountain revelations. Its conclusions would not make anyone rich, happy, and beautiful. Its rewards were unashamedly intellectual, and moreover not that easily achieved. It was a difficult book. I submitted it to my editor, hoping that he would accept it.

Of course he couldn’t.

You can read the whole thing here.

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