Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
I sent a book manuscript out into the world, and it came back looking like a book.
No longer half-hidden half-revealed in the esoteric symbols and arcane language of copy-editing, now it looks the part. A table of contents, page numbers, and running heads; typeset pages and serif fonts; meticulously designed screenplay and reproduced illustrations. My ideas, perhaps, but done up very differently to when I last saw them.
A PDF might be an ersatz facsimile of a book, but for now it’s the best I’ve got and I like it very much indeed.
When does a manuscript become a book? Perhaps the change happens when it leaves our desk and becomes someone else’s problem — something for them to fashion and shape. A book begins when the collaborative work of co-writing shifts into the collaborative work of co-producing.
Perhaps a manuscript becomes a book when a .doc file changes names, assumes airs and graces, and calls itself a .pdf. Following the chameleonlike confidence trickster, changing names and telling new stories carries with it transformations that are material and meaningful. Now that mask contains the outline of what Prince of Tricksters will be.
It might still be too early to answer this question though. Even in these distanced digital times, I cannot predict how I will feel when cover meets manuscript, parcel replaces email attachment, and I have copies of a book to hold in my hand. Perhaps that, in the end, will be the moment when I think something is done and gone.
The book manuscript came back looking like a book, but still it demanded my attention. One final check through for typos, mistakes, slips, and cross-references — that was the easy part. Not because of me, you understand, but because the copyeditors, typesetters, and designers at the University of Chicago Press are so very, very good.
The ersatz Prince of Tricksters needed its index.
In theory I like indexing. In theory I am committed to the index as an intellectual endeavour, an exercise in the craft of history, and an orienting device that is as important as the table of contents or subheadings in shaping how readers will apprehend your book. Forget the glamorous stuff — the superficial glitz of covers and page designs — it is the index that really matters. Hidden away in the bowels of a book is what we might think of as its deep substructure or skeleton. Rather than mechanical or unimportant, the terms you chose to highlight here embed or emphasize the arguments you want to get across in the pages that come before.
A cycling metaphor (it’s been a while): the index is the domestique to the attention-grabbing GC rider that is the text itself. Buried and burying itself into a block headwind, it remains essential nonetheless.
In theory I like indexing.
Five days on, and I am indexed out, indexed up, indexed over. Five days on, and I am not sure I can see straight — let alone ever look at that bloody book again. Confidence trick or confidence trickster? Paris, in popular culture or Paris, cultural representations? What goes under class when the whole book is about social structures and social relations in one way or another?
And don’t get me started on the difficulties of knowing what to do with a prolific storyteller — one predisposed to changing names and telling different tall tales. There are only so many times you can stick see also next to a name.
Still — now that’s done at least Prince of Tricksters will look even more like a book.