Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that does fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
--Shakespeare, The Tempest
Within the next few months, I hope to publish a new book, Diving for Pearls: My Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt. The book takes an unconventional look at the life and work of Hannah Arendt, a twentieth century political theorist recently featured in Margarethe von Trotta’s latest film. What makes my book unconventional? Unlike most academic works on Arendt, in this book, I engage Arendt in what might be called an extended conversation about how to make sense of one’s life. Put differently, as the title suggests, I embark on a thinking journey with Hannah Arendt.
Here’s a brief excerpt from the prologue that explains what I mean:
Like Hannah, who got caught up in thinking about her own life while writing her biography of Rahel Varnhagen, writing stories about Hannah’s life and work, caught me up in reflecting on my own. So this is my story with Hannah, at once political and personal, singular and common. Diving below the surface of her writing, I have crafted a narrative that arches and bends, connecting vignettes about Hannah and me into a mosaic of lives, of life stories, composing an intellectual and emotional scrapbook of the journey I took with Hannah through tangled memories of love and action and thought. The result is this collage of life stories. Or, in musical terms, a fugue.
Because the book doesn’t fit neatly into one category of writing—mixing philosophy and memoir and biography creates a hybrid genre—I haven’t been able to find either a commercial or academic press willing to take it on. Believe me, I’ve tried. But in the decade it’s taken me to finish the manuscript, publishing has changed dramatically and all presses, both trade publishers and academic houses, are cutting back their lists and limiting their focus in ways that have frustrated even established writers. Undaunted, many have chosen, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes with great bravado, to take the self-publishing or “indie author” route.
I admit I still look at the decision to take my book in the indie author direction with a bit of trepidation. There’s a nagging voice in the back of my head saying no self-published book will be taken seriously. But the more I explore the world of independent publishing the more convinced I become of the diversity and quality of writing it's made available. One of the many excellent resources I’ve discovered is Joel Friedlander’s web site and blog. In a recent posting, Joel reminded his readership of three simple steps to successful self-publishing:
You can cook down the process of creating books that people really
want to buy into three pretty simple steps. Like this:
1. Figure out who you're publishing the book for
2. Create the book that those people want to buy
3. Start marketing yourself and your book.
So, how do these apply to my book?
While directing NEH seminars on Hannah Arendt over the last seven years, I worked with nearly 100 U.S. educators. We spent several weeks each summer exploring three key works of Arendt’s: Eichmann in Jerusalem, The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition. Working with these gifted teachers has been a remarkable experience. Among other things, it convinced me of the relevance of Arendt’s writing to helping people think through difficult questions about personal responsibility and the practice of judgment.
I wanted to bring Hannah Arendt’s ideas closer to the average reader’s life, enabling Arendt’s life and work to speak to anyone grappling with how to live a meaningful, more mindful personal and public life. These teachers and their students helped convince me to create a book that could reach a wide audience. To do this, I needed to write a visceral, thought-provoking narrative about coming to terms with the past and finding a place in the present. So, Diving for Pearls aims to appeal both to Arendt scholars and a general readership interested in the activity of thinking as an embodied, sensual adventure of heart and mind.
2. THE BOOK’S SHAPE?
By taking the reader into philosophy through personal narrative, my book transgresses boundaries of “genre.” It doesn’t fit easily into one category or another. Deliberately. Personal stories embodying conceptual signposts in Arendt’s work and life organize my narrative to avoid “over-intellectualizing” the material. To ensure the book is in the best shape possible, I hired an editor, Louise Bernikow, who has extensive experience writing and editing memoir. Feedback should be forthcoming in a week and I will put the finishing touches on the manuscript.
I also want my book’s cover and interior design to invite readers in. Author and blogger Joanna Penn provides many useful tips on her web site, including the importance of design. So I am now working with graphic designer Jeanette Vieira, to create a cover that will grab readers’ attention. I’ve worked with Jeanette before; she designed the beautiful poster for my play, Acts of Faith.
We’ve been exploring an idea based on the cover art for an edition of Arendt’s biography of Rahel Varnhagen.
But I think we are going to aim for something more abstract, something that plays on my book’s title, which is drawn from Arendt’s introductory essay on Walter Benjamin for his collection Illuminations. In the final section of that essay, “The Pearl Diver,” Arendt quotes the lines from Shakespeare’s Tempest I used as the opening epigraph for this blog entry.
Here’s a photo of a photo I took last week to give Jeanette something to play with:
And here’s where you, dear reader, come in.
I am reaching out to readers, current and potential subscribers to this blog, to invite them to follow my progress toward publication of Diving for Pearls. I will be posting discoveries I make along the path, including free sources of information that fellow writers might be interested in exploring for their own books. And I will be looking to you for feedback on everything from cover design to marketing as I step out on this limb.
I hope you will join me on this exciting adventure!