Re-reading, re-creating

I have recently been going through the somewhat unnerving experience of re-reading my own book. There are good reasons for this, to do with writing something that closely relates to work that I completed more years ago than I care to remember. The book came out of my PhD dissertation and it is a sobering experience to see how much research, detail and sheer blooming time I could command back then. The question, naggingly, creeps up on me: will I ever manage to do something like this again?

This is not to say that I think it is a fantastic piece of work – I keep spotting niggly mistakes and am still only too aware of bits that I was unsure of at the time – just that the graduate student years are an unrepeatable experience. Days, weeks, months and years of time are at your disposal to focus on the topic at hand, and to spend, speculatively, in the archive. At present, archival work is a rare treat for me, and I rarely manage more than a day at a time. Of course, the graduate work remains a base that you can build on. Not only is there one area that you really do know about, but there are so many ideas, scraps and topics that couldn’t be squeezed into the thesis, that you have something left over to play with afterwards. It will, though, take a really good grant and nice long sabbaticle to contruct another base like this again.

To lift me from this somewhat melancholic mood, this seems a good idea to take the opportunity to point to the lovely, positive reception I got on joining Whewell’s Ghost and entering the blogosphere. No less that two people read my book! Firstly, my fellow-WGer, Thony Christie, wrote a very generous review over on Renaissance Mathematicus. Secondly, WG commenter Roberto Pimentel introduced the book to his department, creating a Prezi for the occasion. This version he translated for me, which, as with Thony’s review – more, perhaps, than the other journal reviews I received at the time[1] – shows what he got out of the book. It is a fascinating thing for the writer to see, and there is something about the structure of a Prezi (which was new to me) that suggests a coherence that would have been a fine thing for me to have been able to foresee when I was in the middle of 2nd-year PhD blues.

Many belated thanks to Thony and Beto for getting hold of the book, getting through it and letting me know something of their response (they are undoubtedly too nice to have published *all* their thoughts…). As is probably clear from this, my feeling toward it is a mixture of pride, something like embarrasment and even a little fearfulness and sorrow. Something, in fact, akin to the feelings one has about real offspring. In the end, the slowish publication of the book (three years post-PhD) and the rather hasty arrival of my son (nearly two months premature) meant that they were both brought into the world in the very same month.

The last words here, though, will go to Augustus De Morgan, who features in my book. In his Arithmetical Books from the Invention of Printing to the Present Time (1847), he wrote:

The most worthless book of a bygone day is a record worthy of preservation. Like a telescopic star, its obscurity may render it unavailable for most purposes; but it serves, in hands which know how to use it, to determine the places of more important bodies.

 

[1] There is one other review that is freely available on the internet, which I greatly appreciated for its detail and a lucidity that much outclassed the book. This is by Adelene Buckland on the British Society for Science and Literature website.

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9 thoughts on “Re-reading, re-creating

  1. This is not to say that I think it is a fantastic piece of work – I keep spotting niggly mistakes and am still only too aware of bits that I was unsure of at the time…

    Becky, I could tell you exhaustively and in great detail why everything I have ever written and every lecture I’ve ever held are all total crap and how I could have done it all one-hundred time better if I had only taken more time. trouble etc. etc. I think self doubt and dissactisfaction with ones own work are the fuel of the most powerful engine driving good quality in achievements in any field. (Not that my pathetic efforts are in any way good quality.)

    …they are undoubtedly too nice to have published *all* their thoughts…

    What you got were my genuine thoughts on having read your book. No pulled punches, no being polite, just the simple unvarnished truth.

  2. […] I have recently been going through the somewhat unnerving experience of re-reading my own book. There are good reasons for this, to do with writing something that closely relates to work that I completed more years ago than I care to remember. The book came out of my PhD dissertation and it is a sobering experience to see how much research, detail and sheer blooming time I could command back then. The question, naggingly, creeps up on me: will I ever manage to do something like this again? [Read more] […]

  3. Becky, I’m with Thony on this. I am probably too honest to afford niceness. It must be a Boy Scouts’ thing that I could never get rid of.

    I am glad to see that our reading provided you with some kind of interesting feedback. It is what is left for us thankful readers to do.

    Being right now in the middle of a logistic hurricane that involves taking care of a 6-year old, living with my mother-in-law while the new house we bought has its delivery constantly postponed by the contractors, dealing with a broken arm and a soon inner ear operation and the need to go back teaching high school Physics next year, AND (last but not least) finishing my Ph. D. thesis, it is good to hear that such a talented researcher as yourself still finds it difficult to cope with time constraints imposed by life after postgraduate studies. 🙂

    About the Prezi, doing the presentation on your book inspired me to not only prepare something similar to my own thesis presentation, but also prepare it with great advance, in such a manner as to gain insight in terms of coherence and completeness for the whole research, as you now confirm happens. I hope I have the same feeling in the end.

    All the best,
    Beto

    • I think preparing a presentation like this, or even something like a spider diagram – anything so long as it has this visual connectedness – should be a compulsory part of thesis preparation! Good luck with it all!

  4. Becky, I’ve no idea why the following occurred to me now but it did, so I’ll ask anyway. When George Boole was still an unknown young schoolmaster in Lincoln he and his father were both involved in the establishment of the Lincoln branch of the Mechanic’s Institute in 1833. Being Lincoln their local patron donated a bust of Isaac Newton, a local lad, that was ceremoniously unveiled with Boole holding a biographical lecture on Newton, which then became his first academic publication. Do you have any idea from the research you did for your thesis if this was a unique situation or whether Newtonian mythology played a significant role in the Mechanic’s Institute movement, which was after all closely connected to the SDUK?

    • I think it was probably Lincolnshire that was key here, rather than the Mechanics Institute. As I suggested in the SDUK section in my book, Newton was always a rather problematic figure for workers’ education, as more often seen as a genius rather than emulative, hard-working & demonstrating the role of accessible method.

      Locality, however, inspired people like Edmund & Charles Turnor to collect manuscripts and Newtoniana, and all the celebrations and publications on the occasion of the Grantham statue inauguration. Newton’s legacy was, in part, for the nation and the world, but especially for Lincolnshire and Cambridge.

      I’m sad that I missed the Boole biography, though. I’ll have to have a look – and hope it confirms rather than challenges all my previous assumptions!

      • My thought was that in this case Lincolnshire is the key, later when Boole became famous there was a tendency to celebrate him and Isaac together as sons of the county. However I was curious as to whether the Mechanic’s Institutes in general had maybe taken Newton as a figure head.

        You can read about the Newton bust in the Lincoln MI and Boole’s involvement in MacHale Boole biography.

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