I’m honored and extremely grateful for the invitation to guest-blog in these pages. In a handful of posts this month, I’ll take the opportunity to talk about my new book, The Spirit of the Constitution: John Marshall and the 200-Year Odyssey of McCulloch v. Maryland —about both its substance and my experience with the process of publishing a late-career first book. The book traces the history of American federalism through the vehicle of John Marshall’s 1819 opinion in McCulloch v. Maryland, by examining how successive generations received and understood the case differently. Richard Primus summed up my argument in his entry in a symposium on the book on Balkinization blog last month:
The book’s studied ambivalence about the canonical status of McCulloch is partly a function of McCulloch’s capacity to retard as well as to advance national power, and thus to vindicate or repress the spirit of the Constitution, depending on who is using it.
My reliance on a reviewer’s description here reflects the fact that a good “elevator pitch” for the book continues to elude me. This is just one of the many imperfections of this project.
Do you have an example of a history book that you think is perfect? My nominee might be James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, because it is beautifully written and an ideal example of its genre, the interwoven political/military history. It’s easy to say, and perhaps more true to say, that no book is “perfect.” Maybe what I’m talking about is the book which, once you’ve finished it, you wanted more because you didn’t want the reading experience to end, not because you think there was more that the author needed to say.
I’ve found writing a book to be an exercise in letting go of perfection. As authors, of course, we all know where the bodies are buried in our work. Perhaps there is a point in the argument where the logical leap was a bit too long, or maybe there is a fact that we massaged a bit because we couldn’t find a solid source for it before the deadline. Hopefully, these are trivial or tangential imperfections that don’t detract from the overall quality of the work.
I have a different sort of imperfection in mind. I had naively assumed that a book should be the culmination of my thought process, and the perfection of my ideas on this particular subject. I supposed I would have nothing more to say, and would happily move on to a new and different project. What I found instead, was that my ideas shifted around as I wrote. I found it difficult or impossible to go back and make earlier-written parts fully consistent with my evolving thinking. And, as I encounter further scholarship on my topic, I find myself wishing that I had included this or that. Not only is my book not the definitive account of my subject – it is not even the definitive account of my own thinking on my subject!
But the book is now out in the world. It’s time to begin the process of letting it go.