What should a book be these days? (Review of Why Are You Atheists So Angry?)

As with my review of Hank’s book, in this post I’m going to be using Greta Christina’s new book (Why Are You Atheists So Angry?: 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless) as a jumping-off point to talk about writing. But first, lest there be any confusion about this, this is a really awesome book and you’ll very likely want to buy it. The best way to explain why is to quote from the introduction:

I wrote it for other atheists — to give a voice to thoughts and feelings they haven’t been able to put into words. I wrote it for religious believers — to give a sincere, thoughtful answer to this question, and to explain this phenomenon of outspoken, often angry atheism that’s been exploding in the last few years. And I wrote it for atheists who are constantly getting asked, “Why are you so angry?” by their religious family and friends. I wrote it so they’d have an easy way to answer it. “You want to know why I’m angry? Here — read this book!”

I think this book will do an excellent job of filling the needs of people in all three categories, and if you fall into any of them you’ll probably want to buy it. Except maybe if you fall into the third category and can get friends and family members to pay for it themselves!

You might also want to buy it for the same reason I bought it, in spite of having read a late draft–you’re a big fan of Greta’s, and you really wanted to see how the final version turned out.

The book is basically a revised and expanded version of some of Greta’s best blogging. The deluxe version, if you will. If you’re a fan of her blog, I can reassure you that this book has all the awesomeness of the blog and more. It starts off with a version of her justifiably famous Atheists and Anger post, which she turned into a 99-point “litany of rage.”

The next six chapters deal with likely reactions to the litany; the titles are “Some Answers to the Questions I Know I’ll Get Asked,” “Why This Really Is Religion’s Fault,” “Yes This Means You: Moderate and Progressive Religion,” “Yes This Means You: New Age Religion,” “Yes This Means You: ‘Spiritual But Not Religious,'” and “Yes This Means You: Ecumenicalism and Interfaith.”

Later chapters include versions of Greta’s previously published posts The Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe in God, The Santa Delusion, and What Do You Want, Anyway? They also include more developed versions of Greta’s previously-expressed thoughts on atheist activism.

Now that I have (I hope) clearly stated the awesomeness of the book, I’m going to ruminate about writing. You see, this book doesn’t quite fit my notions of what a book should be like. For one thing, the chapters vary in length a lot. This leads to some jarring experiences where a chapter feels like it’s going strong, and then suddenly ends much sooner than you expected it to.

The reason some chapters are so short, of course, is that they’re revised blog posts. And the book’s origin in blogging shows in other ways too. The first seven chapters are tightly woven together, but the connection between the other seven is a bit looser. The book is definitely more than a collection of blog posts, but it doesn’t feel like a traditional book either. It feels like an evolutionary intermediate between a collection of blog posts and a traditional book.

Now while I don’t like this feature of the book, I need to stress that this doesn’t make it a bad book. I meant everything I said at the beginning of this review about how awesome the book is. But I’m inclined to think this makes the book not as good as it could have been, had Greta spent more time shaping it into a coherent whole.

Further caveat: if Greta had spent more time shaping the book into a coherent whole, it wouldn’t be available for purchase right now. And I’m very glad the book is available now. Long before I heard Greta was writing this book, I was wondering when the hell she would write one. I was very excited when I heard about it, and the book still turned out great.

So there’s a trade off here, between releasing a pretty good book as soon as possible, and making your readers wait a bit for a book that’s the absolute best you can make it. And the cost-benefit analysis has shifted with the coming of e-books and print on demand. It used to be that getting a book published took a huge amount of effort, and no matter what you did there was going to be a significant delay between the final draft and the book hitting bookstores. That situation favored the “spend two years revising and perfecting your book” approach.

But now e-books have blurred the line between a book and a long essay. I know both Sam Harris and Matt Yglesias (and probably other people) have put out e-books that are self-consciously in-between a traditional book and an essay. With traditional forms of writing like books and magazine articles, the length is to some extent forced on you by the medium, but this doesn’t happen with e-books.

What’s more, easy publishing (and this includes print on demand) opens up the possibility for relatively ephemeral books. If you don’t get it right the first time around, putting out a revised edition is trivial. If your book ceases to be relevant a year after it’s published, that’s okay, write a new one.

I don’t know how many people know this, but I experienced a bit of this with my book. It originally had too many typos and people complained, so I hopped on ELance.com, hired a professional proofreader, and my editor and I put out a corrected version in no time at all. There was no waiting for a print run to sell out or anything like that, because we were using print on demand. And one thing that’s made me hesitant about self-publishing it after the publisher folded is that I don’t want to face the dilemma of whether of not to significantly revise the thing.

And a big part of the reason I’m writing this post this way is that I’m facing the “how much time do I take on this?” dilemma with the book I’m working on right now. I’ve got tens of thousands of words written, but I’m freaking out over issues of writing style and how I’m going to turn the disjointed bits I’ve got into a coherent whole. I’ve been trying to get the damn thing written since before Greta announced her book, and I’m still way behind her on this. I’m kind of envious of her. So I’m questioning my own writing philosophy here.

Anyway, however much time exactly I end up putting into my book, I’ve got one more reason to be glad Greta’s book is out: it’s a kick in the pants to get my book done!

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