Mike Shulman has asked another question that is forcing me to think more carefully about my motivations in writing and publishing the book to which this blog is dedicated; even to remember some ulterior motives that I had forgotten long before I started writing at all. He writes
I do not personally find it pleasurable to be forced to figure out what I’m reading about when the author could instead have made it clear.
while such writing may not be “wrong”, in the sense that it’s a choice that you as an author have the right to make, I would say it’s also a choice that excludes a substantial number of people from your audience.
Shortly after I moved to France in 1994 I found French expressions and syntactic constructions creeping across the poorly policed borders of my spoken as well as written language. I began to write in part as a form of self-defense, or defense of my intellectual coherence, and I explicitly set out to write sentences that could not easily be translated, no so much by using an unfamiliar vocabulary but rather by combining stylistic levels and juxtaposing material in a way that (so I thought) would lead to fruitful misunderstanding if translated literally.
Now that I’ve written a book I realize this is a self-defeating strategy; I have no right to complain if no one wants to translate it. Fortunately it turns out that I underestimated the ingenuity of translators. Just this month I had the honor of checking a lively and startlingly idiomatic rendition of one of my book reviews by the translator responsible for making this book available to Italian readers. And Nathalie Sinclair prepared a wonderful French translation of the Afterword to MWA for the Quinzaine Littéraire (unfortunately behind a paywall).
I’ll have more to say about these later. Once I got into the habit of writing in English I stopped worrying about threats to my identity and now I am rooting for the translators. “Kein Mensch ist illegal,” as (some) Germans say. What worries me now is a more insidious form of border crossing, and I am peppering my prose with (apparent) non sequiturs less in the spirit of the dérive celebrated by the Lettrists and Situationists and recorded in Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces than to confound the automated trackers in a probably vain attempt to stave off the kind of cyberpunk apocalypse to which I allude in a series of monstrous run-on sentences at the climax of Chapter 8 (which also happens to be where all the loose ends that have accumulated up to that point are tied together in an attempt to prove that the non sequiturs were only apparent after all):
Like the (often inadvertently) anarchist heroes of Pynchon’s novels, who struggle to maintain their values, their personal identities, even their lives in the face of the implacably deterministic projects of more or less precisely identified Powerful Beings, cyberpunk stages a confrontation between an artificial intelligence programmed to impose its version of certifiable seriousness and a (Neu-)romantic trickster hero whose quest is to preserve what remains of our common humanity.
Or, in plain English, I want to do my part for human beings by writing prose that they can understand (with a little effort) but machines cannot (no matter how hard they try). This is only halfway facetious. Having lived twice (at least) for extended periods of time in certifiable police states, where I could be sure my telephone communications were monitored, I didn’t want to make them so easy to understand that they could be handled in a routine manner by automated language processors. At least not by language processors that were not only automated but also lacking a sense of humor.
Some readers will recognize the sample text at the beginning of this post as an excerpt of a recurrent neural network‘s contribution to the Stacks project that has blossomed under the guidance of my neighbor Johan de Jong. The results so far may be unstructured gibberish but the automaters are persistent and it would be unwise to count on having the last laugh. But let me get back to Mike Shulman’s question. My overriding concern in writing MWA was that authors of books about mathematics have a tendency to “make things clear” by relying on what I call “unexamined preconceptions that can stand to be examined.” Clarity is achieved in much popular writing about mathematics at the cost of smoothing over the rough edges. It’s the rough edges, I claim, that make the whole enterprise worthwhile, and I have worked on developing a writing style that makes them as visible as possible, in the spirit of (fruitful) emotional and conceptual disorientation.*
But some potential readers may be looking for books that reassure them that the rough spots are temporary blemishes that in any case don’t deserve to be mentioned. That’s why I can say a lousy review like the one by Mark Hunacek may be a blessing in disguise, even though the American Mathematical Monthly advertises itself as “the most widely read journal of collegiate mathematics in the world.” Most of the people who will be discouraged from buying the book after reading such a review probably would have felt “excluded … from [my] audience,” as Shulman puts it, if they had bought it. I suspect the business model of Princeton University Press (if they have such a thing) is not predicated on extracting profits from unwary readers who dislike the books they buy, but even if it is, a pure cost-benefit analysis shows the model is likely not to be sustainable. (Readers who buy the book expecting it to be something other than what it is may well take their revenge by writing one-star reviews on Amazon, with a negative net effect on PUP’s bottom line.)
I’m not entirely satisfied that I’ve made myself clear in this post and I may revise it, more than once, over the next few weeks.
*”The spatial field of a dérive may be precisely delimited or vague, depending on whether the goal is to study a terrain or to emotionally disorient oneself.” (Guy Debord, from Internationale Situationniste #2, December 1958, translated by Ken Knabb)