Book vs. iPad

Have you read a book so thick you were particularly proud of finishing it?  Say, Moby-Dick, or Crime and Punishment.  Maybe War and Peace?

Last summer I set myself the task of reading all four volumes of Robert Caro’s projected five-volume life of Lyndon Johnson, some 3,000 pages so far.  The fourth book was so hefty it was difficult to balance on my stomach as I read.  (I like to read lying down.)  Here’s a photo I took while reading by the pool.


Most of the time now I read books on an iPad (again, lying down), which is altogether a more convenient method.  No wrestling with a hefty tome, no turning pages, no, well, paper.  But when I’m done there’s no book to close and put on a shelf. There’s no monument to the work I put into reading.

I have a library at home, a room devoted to showing off my reading.  Here’s one wall:


The iPad I now prefer has me questioning the point of all that paper stuffed on shelves and taking up space.  Really, aren’t private libraries more boasting than indexing?  I can’t even take the time to organize my books.  When I want something I have to scan the shelves.  If I want to go back to a book on the iPad I can search electronically, effortlessly.

Still, I have a sentimental attachment to the big book, which is why I bought hard copies of Caro’s magisterial work.  But it sure was a hassle lugging those volumes around.


The ghost in the keyboard


I’m reading a novel, The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles, by Katherine Pancol. It’s the story of a single mother in Paris who sort of ghostwrites herself out of poverty by penning best-selling fiction about what she knows, medieval Europe (she’s a Ph.D.) and allowing her sister to take the fame but none of the cash (she’s rich but needy). The story reminds me of another book I enjoyed, Author From a Savage People,  by Bette Pesetsky, also about a woman ghostwriter.  In both cases, the secret authors use their talents to wreak revenge on the men who use them.

I’m drawn to these stories because I, too, am a ghostwriter, although only for the money and not to get even with anyone.  I write mostly trade journal articles about science and technology for a corporation on a work-for-hire basis.  Someone in the company gets the byline, and I get the check.

This sort of writing-just-for-the-money arrangement that cedes authorship to a non-writer bothers some people.  They see it, I think, as a fraud or an insult to the art of writing.

A couple things about what I do.  I work closely with subject matter experts who become the “authors” of the articles whose content they provide and vet, and sometimes write in part.  If anyone wants more information on the topic, he or she will contact the expert, not me, which is exactly how it should be.  This sort of arrangement is rather commonplace in organizations, which hire writers to do the writing, others to be the authorities.  When an Op-Ed article by a CEO appears in the newspaper, odds are the CEO did not write it.  What  titan of business has time for that sort of thing?

This is not to argue that corporate ghosting is right because it takes place often.  It is to point out that in some settings writing is part of the division of labor and not something accomplished by a struggling artist.  That someone else takes credit is part of the deal.

Is it a fraud?  Well, think of how often we receive messages from someone who is not the author–for instance, practically every speech by a President.  The ideas are his (we certainly hope) but the phrasing and form come from ghosts.

In fact, it’s no stretch to imagine all manner of writing haunted by ghosts:  they’re called editors.