The Gift Economy

Here we go.

It’s time.

I’ve been thinking about this for a little more than a year—taking some of the books I’ve written, putting them into attractive paperback versions, and then giving them away. For free.

It’s a fun process to take a story that’s lived its whole life in an anodyne Microsoft Word document and to give it physical form. To make it into a book. To make the hundred decisions about typeface and margins, about chapter headings and section dividers, about cover images and cover text, that every book requires. To design the graphic device (the publisher’s mark, which you can see at the top of this post) for Spruce Knob Press, which isn’t really a business, it’s just me making some books.

It’s also been fun to NOT make some decisions. My books don’t have ISBN numbers or barcodes. They don’t have e-book editions, or links to Amazon. They don’t have a price, or a link to a Square or Venmo or PayPal checkout. They’re simply gifts.

You’re welcome.

So now it’s your turn. Visit the “Books for Free” tab of my website to see a brief description of the six books that are currently available. Choose one. (We’re operating under the Thanksgiving-dinner model here: take only one. If you like it, you can always go back for seconds.) Get me your U.S. mailing address—by email if you know my email address, through the “Keep in Touch” tab of my website, or through the Messaging feature of LinkedIn if you saw this on that site. And I’ll put a book into the mail for you. It really is that easy. If I run out of one, I’ll get more made in a week or ten days, so don’t worry about that. (As Jay Leno once said on behalf of Doritos, “Go ahead, we’ll make more.”)

I’ll look forward to sharing stories with you. Thanks for all of your support and encouragement along the way. I hope you’ll enjoy them.

A Book You Should Have, If You’re In Higher Ed

A few days ago, I talked about preparing to give some books away for free. Well, I can’t give this one away, but you should go buy it anyway. The Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture asked me about a year ago to do some workshops on assessment, which in the end had over 200 attendees from about 50 colleges and universities. So we decided that an assessment handbook might be in order, and have spent the past few months making one.

And here it is.

Although it’s aimed specifically at assessment methods that will be of use for architecture schools, it’s a simple guide for any school (or frankly, any organization at all) that wants to develop systematic ways to get better at the things they really want to do.

Assessment scares people, but it really shouldn’t. The cycle of assessment, from description to judgment to change, is a normal—and crucial—part of everyday life. Our new handbook describes both the practices and the opportunities of assessment.

Assessment can be an important lever for the pursuit of equity and inclusion, and for communication with stakeholders. Assessment can improve curricular alignment, and help your program to pursue your own unique mission. This plainspoken handbook is designed to help architecture programs at any level of development to create, improve, and make use of relevant and powerful systems of assessment.

The book is intended to be encouraging, to help your organization start somewhere and make some important and effective advances. So go pre-order one. If your school’s an ACSA member, it’s thirty bucks plus six for shipping; if you’re not an ACSA member, it’s forty plus six. And anybody can buy the electronic version that can be shared broadly across teams for a hundred. So go do one of those things. Right now. Go.


(Image by Dušan Veverkolog, via Unsplash)

So for four months I was underground, digging away happily at the vein of ore in the mine. It was rich and productive, and I was fully immersed.

But now I’ve emerged, blinking, into the sunlight where all the complications of the world have waited patiently for my return.

The biggest problem that awaits the happy author of the completed manuscript is actually a mirrored pair of problems, a pushmi-pullyu that can’t successfully navigate in either direction. One head of the animal is finding readers. How can I get the book in front of people who might enjoy it? The world of literary agentry is the most fakakta enterprise ever invented, a community of connections for which you need pre-connections to get more than a desultory twenty-second review. Not their fault, of course; they’re looking for the love-at-first-sight moment, and using the equivalent of Tinder to do it. Swipe left… swipe left… swipe left…

I’m preparing to give copies of my books away to friends and their friends, but that means re-building my website, which means new plug-ins and new account levels and blah-de-blah-de-blah. I don’t need money, which means that I’m not all that attractive to the publishing world anyway, since words are currency over there. I’m actually looking forward to giving the work away for free, but that’s its own set of tasks.

But the other head of the creature is what might happen if I DID find readers. What are the book’s responsibilities in the world, and to whom? In particular, what do I owe Nora, my first and most steadfast reader? Can I publish things that she finds uncomfortable? Why would I introduce discomfort into the person I love most in the world?

I write lots of characters. I actually counted, in one book, that there were 84 specific, identifiable people who would have to be cast in the movie, not counting the anonymous crowds. Many of those characters are unlike me. In gender, in sexual orientation, in ethnicity, in age, in social class, in profession. I can research similar lives for months on end, but I can’t possibly “get them right,” because there IS no single right way to be female, to be Hindu, to be a corn farmer. All of those groups are wildly diverse within themselves, but lots of people are ready to be affronted if a writer’s expression of a community is different from their own. And I don’t mean to cause anyone else discomfort, either.

I’m not going to write about nothing but 63-year-old white guys who’ve moved to Vermont in the past ten years. That’s kind of a limited palette. (Although lots of memoirists have dug endlessly from a single mine. As David Chapin put it, they’ve become parasites on their own lives.) So what responsibility does my story bear to someone who might see herself “inaccurately” portrayed? And what responsibility does my story bear to people who ARE quite a lot like me, and might actually learn something about diversity (and about themselves) through the research I’ve conducted to bring my characters into being?

It’s dangerous above ground, right? Safer to duck back under and start another book!

One of the great things about my being married to a super-smart writer is that we have wonderful conversations. Nora and I actually went over a lot of these ideas this morning, while we were out digging potatoes and getting the garden ready for winter. We talked about what it meant to be novelists who were both trained as ethnographers, for whom the research can sometimes be more fun than the writing, for whom listening to characters has ethical importance. We talked about the limits of what must be known and what may be filled in with invention. We talked about what it’s meant that she’s read three of my novels in the past four months, and thus now knows all my tricks. “Oh, geez, that again?” Patterns you might miss if you dip into a writer’s work every couple of years become visible (and maybe annoying…) when you’ve seen them three times since summer. What of our repetition is our “voice,” and what of our repetition is just laziness? Or some authorial disability that limits our motion?

All that, plus we got potatoes.

Anyway, keep you eyes open for the web re-launch, and your opportunity to choose from among several new books that will be my gifts to any readers who ask.


As of about half an hour ago, the new novel is done. & Sons has been fully assembled, fired up and run on the bench with no damage. There’s a fair bit of cleanup left to do before we take it out to the show, but I know how to do that.

I opened my writing log and closed out the account for this one. One hundred twenty-six days, eighty-seven thousand words. And I discovered that, without my knowing it, this one has pushed me past a significant mark. I’m now over a million words of completed book-length work since I started doing this seriously back in 2013. I must be getting better at it, right?

Here’s the family:

Nonfiction: The PhDictionary. The Adjunct Underclass. Slush.

Fiction: The Abbot of Saginaw. The Triptych (The Host/The List/The Test). The City Killers. The Opposite of Control. A Field Guide to Men of the 1970s. Trailing Spouse. Leopard. & Sons.

Fourteen books in eight years. Productivity or compulsion? And who could know the difference?

I’ll be revising my website in the next few weeks to make some of this work available to you. I hope you’ll enjoy it. And thanks for following along with the journey so far. Your comments and thumbs-up’s have been sustenance on the trail.