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mpoe  ·  2536 days ago  ·  link  ·    ·  parent  ·  post: Meme Weaver
I'm the author of "Meme Weaver." I very much appreciate the comments. Since there seems to be some dispute about what I meant in the piece (the lack of clarity is of course my fault, with one caveat you'll find below), let me try to clarify. (This may be TL;DR, sorry).

I viewed the essay as a kind of cautionary tale of the "don't bit off more than you can chew" variety. Or rather, "don't bite off something that you pretty much know you won't find very tasty" variety. I tried to suggest that I never should have agreed to write the book. I knew very well I was pitching it to get the contract, not to have an opportunity to tell the world something I had discovered through a great deal of research. As I said in the piece, I had discovered nothing at that point. And, since I'd written academic books, I knew exactly what it meant to discover something through years of research. But I wanted (or thought I wanted) to be the next Malcolm Gladwell. So I told the publishers what they wanted to hear rather than what I wanted--or even could--say. That was a mistake, the more so because I wasted a bunch of people's time.

That was my main point. I made some other points along the way. 1) That you don't need a good book to get a big book contract; what you need is a sellable idea for a book and a "platform." There's something funny about that, IMHO. 2) That the people who moved the "book" (which did not exist) from idea to contract to spiked manuscript were just doing their jobs--namely producing a kind of book that many people find a lot of value in. I was the problem, not them. 3) Finally (and apparently controversially) that there is something suspect about "big idea" books. I wasn't able to explain what I meant by this because (and here's the promised caveat) you don't get as much space as you want in a magazine like The Atlantic. That's just the way it works. (BTW, you don't get to write the title either--"Meme Weaver" wasn't my idea; in fact I was not even asked if I liked it!) But now I have a bit more space, so let me be explicit.

The trouble with "big idea" books is that they reduce very complex human phenomena to a "factor." "Guns, Germs and Steel" is an excellent example. The disposition of continents "explains" why the West came to dominate the world the same way gravity "explains" why a single apple fell from my apple tree at 4:36 pm CDT on October 12, 2011. Both "factors" (geography and gravity) may be necessary, but they are so far from sufficient that the mind boggles at any attempt to say they are. Yet this is just what most "big idea" books claim, if not always explicitly. And people buy it. I can't tell you how many smart folks have "explained" the rise of the West to me with reference to "geography."

Here's the acid test for a "big idea": could you have predicted the phenomenon retrospectively "explained" by the "big idea"? Imagine you were a little green man observing the Earth right after the emergence of Homo sapiens. Could you have confidently said "Geography is the master factor, so I know exactly what's going to happen 180,000 years from now--that little spit of land over there is going to dominate the world!" I doubt it.

And here's an interesting thing. Though GGS has a "big idea," Jared Diamond doesn't really believe it. He's a brilliant researcher and much subtler that that. I know this because I interviewed him at length. (I don't know what your policy is on self-links, but here one comes). You can find the interview (and a bunch of others) at http://newbooksinhistory.com.

Anyway, I've said too much (I warned you!). And sorry for the typos; it's late. Thanks for taking the time to read the article and to read this thread.