After a diverse summer spent partly on holiday, partly in the office and partly asleep, I was trying to ease myself back into the routine of the academic year, tidying up unfinished papers and reading my way into a PhD thesis. A tap at the door turned out to be the FedEx man, bearing a large box. And in the box were the first copies of my new book Animals as Neighbors [http://msupress.msu.edu/bookTemplate.php?bookID=4399].
The arrival of the latest publication always provokes rather mixed feelings in me. There is the pleasure at seeing the finished product and of smelling the complex scent of a new book (maybe that’s just me…). Then there is the slight anxiety that on flicking through the pages, I will find the embarrassing typo that managed to hide away all through editing and proof-checking, only emerging when it is too late to amend “bottle-scarred veteran” back to “battle-scarred veteran”. Underlying all of that, though, is the feeling of ticking off that task and getting straight onto the next one. Perhaps it says something about the unhealthy state of UK academia that it seems self-indulgent to take a few hours to appreciate the new volume and to enjoy having produced it, rather than worrying about the remaining to-do list.
The book is about animals – no surprise there – but it is unusual in trying to integrate the archaeological and historical records with zoology and ecology, to get a global and long-term view of the many species that have adapted to living in our villages, towns and cities. That explains the pigeons on the front cover. One of the most enjoyable aspects of putting the book together was having to switch between research literatures, from the zooarchaeology sources with which I am familiar, to behavioural ecology, to ethnographic accounts. Different disciplines communicate in different voices and, though I could live without the unnecessarily prolix and obscurantist style of some social anthropology papers, moving between those different voices was interesting and refreshing. In fact, I have persisted with that literature long beyond the research phase for the book, currently enjoying John Marzluff on the subject of crows.
Sometimes I am inclined to agree with King Solomon, quoted thus in Ecclesiastes 12:12 – “And further, by these, my sonne, be admonished: of making many bookes there is no end, and much studie is a wearinesse of the flesh”, rendered here in the 1611 King James spelling. A lot of effort goes into even the most modest of published research literature, and it might seem that all but the most headline-grabbing papers and books sink quietly into obscurity. However, academic research is essentially a simple process of finding out new stuff about the world and telling people about it. A newly-published book, however niche and specialist, is part of that process of ‘telling’, and thus an essential part of the job. Furthermore, the very act of writing the book requires one’s grasp of a topic to be organised and tested. So we write in order to communicate with an audience, but the act of writing is itself somewhat self-indulgent, giving us the excuse to revisit, revise and digest our knowledge of the subject matter. Maybe that’s all too philosophical, but it certainly beats writing a book in order to score points on some dam’ fool research assessment!
And now it is back to the routine, with a new term looming just over the horizon, lectures and reading lists to update, and a half-finished PhD thesis squatting on the end of the desk. That’s Neighbors finished: what’s next?