When does a book happen?

At publication? When the author sees it in the bookstore? When it’s reviewed? Consider this. A book happens when it begins to live in conversation and contributes to the life of the author and those around her.

The book I’m writing about people being leaders in the world is still some way off its existence in the conventional sense – a thing made of type, with a publisher’s imprimatur that sits on a bookshelf or a device – but it’s already started living. Here are three recent days in the life of the book.

Day One: lunch in the city with a former colleague

He’s recently joined a new organisation and is nervous and excited about creating it as somewhere he’s proud to be. I start sharing ideas from the book and he starts sharing insights from his MBA and the conversation takes fire. I get to create the book on the fly so it’s gotten by another and by myself. Whole new insights enter the space. At some point, lunch is eaten but I can’t tell you when or how. We say goodbye, moved and delighted, he beginning to plan the next day’s strategy session in a whole new way, me rushing home to salt away unexpected gems.

Day Two: on a first date

He wants to know more about the book, which I’ve mentioned previously. I start sketching a few details of a couple of the leaders I’ve interviewed. I’m doing this in a low-key kind of way – if I’m on a date I want the man to be impatient for details of me, not some mythical others, and I’m assuming any man is wanting similar. So I’m just skimming along, a sentence or two about this person, a few points about another, and suddenly I see his posture change, and, unmistakeable sign, he starts talking excitedly over the top of what I’m saying as some self-made barrier bursts and the longing for something else emerges.

Later he texts me to say he’s inspired and is taking on showing his vulnerable side to his work colleagues with whom he wants to have a closer relationship. I’m amazed. He has gotten exactly what there is to be gotten about a couple of tiny details I shared about another man; it was so slight, so fleeting, and yet he’s heard something he’d been seeking.

And it has happened without my conscious intention or effort; all I’ve done is be like a conduit – and not even a very efficient one – between the man in the story and the man on the date.

Day Three: in the State Library

I’m dealing with an event that is going to happen that night. I’m feeling anxious, reluctant. I start browsing, desultorily, through some draft sections of the book. Then something sticks in my eye; I read it again. “Ah”, I think, “that’s what I’m dealing with now!” and then I get what I’ve been missing. My context about the evening’s event shifts and the tension falls away. “Of course, I’ll just do that”, and I start to look forward to the rest of the day.

The book about people being leaders in the world may be unpublished, unwritten still, and yet it’s already happening out there in the world. And it’s being birthed, not by a publisher, not by me, but by the people with whom I have conversations.


ImageThe art conversation,  Rene Magritte, 1936


8 thoughts on “When does a book happen?

  1. That’s a great image, the Magritte! As to the question of when a book is a book…I recall that both Borges and Stanislav Lem, not having time perhaps to produce the books they conceived of writing, instead produced reviews of non-existent books. They found this saved a lot of time. In relation to your question this is interesting: having read the reviews of non-existent books some time ago I can’t now remember which books they wrote existed and which were ‘fictional’. But since they are all part of the conversation perforce we are left with the remarkable idea that non-existent books can enter the conversation and ‘live’ so to speak. Magritte captures this rather well!


    • Hi Jeffocks. I love that Borges and Lem just dispensed with the whole tedious writing part. George Steiner, I think, wrote a book about the books he didn’t write, which is a little guiltful for me. I prefer the Borges approach … just steam on.

      As for not remembering which books were which … I discovered this same thing through blogging. On a day when the page hits are low I used to log out and then start clicking on posts to drive up the stats; I still do this sometimes when I can’t bear the absence of readers. And then a few hours later I would log back in and my heart would leap when I’d see a high number of hits for a post. I’d completely forget I was the one responsible!

      We’re so serious about what we think of as “reality” when actually it’s entirely up for invention …


  2. Great Post.
    I think a book happens when one creates and visulizes it in one’s mind. Sort of like the beginning of a pregnacy–
    -a small fetus…then the hands, a mouth, feet….. a beating heart… etc…
    when it is finished, one offers it to the universe. x


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