How Not to Write a Book

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I just finished writing a commentary on Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution. Bellah’s ideas are highly stimulating and I want to discuss one central issue of the book, that of evolution of egalitarianism in the next blog. But first a few words about the book itself.

Bellah wrote Religion in Human Evolution over the period of 13 years. This reminds me of the first book that I wrote (on the analysis of animal movements), which took just over 10 years to complete. In the process I went from a postdoc position to a job with the US Forest Service, then to an academic job I presently hold, I got tenure, I switched publishers… By the time I was working on the second half of the book, the first one was becoming obsolete (because the field was moving rapidly). Basically I did everything to make the process of writing as stressful as possible (aspiring authors, take note!). I learned my lesson. Now when I want to write a book I first clear the decks, and then work on it until I finish it, ignoring everything else. Naturally, the reality intrudes on this ideal scheme, but it pays to approach the ideal as much as possible.

It appears that Robert Bellah had to struggle with similar problems while writing Religion in Human Evolution. As he relates towards the end of the book, after writing the first draft of all but the last chapter, he discovered a new theme, the importance of animal play for our understanding of the evolution of rituals in human cultures. This prompted him to completely rewrite Chapters 2 (Religion and Evolution) and 10 (Conclusion), while leaving the intervening chapters intact – because “having being at work for thirteen years” he couldn’t “imagine rewriting the whole book to give adequate attention to play” (p. 567). This bit of personal history explains the complex structure of the book, but as a reader I wish Bellah had done us all a favor and saved the play theme for another monograph. Had I not agreed to write a commentary, I would have probably given up somewhere in the middle of the book. One report I have from another reader suggests similar exasperation with the book. A reviewer for New York Times puts it bluntly, “A shorter book would have been a better book.”

So I suspect that most readers (especially those who had not agreed ahead of time to write a review) would not get very far with it. This would be a great pity, because the book offers many rewards to those who persevere. One theme that I found particularly productive for my own research was the evolution of human egalitarianism. I will address this issue in the next blog.

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