From Cold to Cod: Thoughts on Unwritten Books

Nancy Lord’s review of Bill Streever’s Cold — with its hint of understandable envy about the general subject, which so many of us would have enjoyed writing about — reminded me of all those books we think of authoring, but don’t. My favorite unwritten book taught me some important lessons.

In the summer of 1993, I found myself in a small town in Nova Scotia down the coast from where I had recently settled with my husband Brian, asking for permission to board a docked Russian trawler that the local fishermen had surrounded with their smaller boats, holding the big vessel hostage as an international demonstration of their desperation about overexploited fish stocks.

It was a strange and exciting scene, and both the local fishermen and the Russian hostages were surprisingly civil, though tense. A carton of cigarettes was all it took to get aboard the trawler, and a nervous young blond man in a white t-shirt and loose jeans – a James Dean with a Russian accent – gladly showed me around, answered my questions as well as he could, and let me shoot some photographs.

I wasn’t a journalist. But I knew there was a great story in this cod drama, in this cod story in general, which might open out into larger issues: how a government had mismanaged a fishery so profoundly, how Newfoundlanders and Nova Scotians would struggle to adapt to their changing fortunes, and the strange history of the codfish itself, which had lured so many Europeans to North America in the first place. I loved books like Diane Ackerman’s Natural History of the Senses and I hoped one could write a book about a specific topic like fish, including all the kinds of peculiar anecdotes and sensual details that made Ackerman’s writing so wonderful.

But I was young and inexperienced, and I had no idea to proceed. I’d written one guidebook (to kayaking Baja California) and read lots of literary nonfiction, but I’d never tackled a more serious nonfiction book. I was finishing up an obscure graduate degree – an “M.M.M.” or Master of Marine Management degree, encompassing fisheries management and international law. That provided some good background, and good contacts, I suppose.

One of those contacts, a professor of maritime anthropology, met me in his office and listened to my post-graduation plan to write a book for the general reader about the “cod crisis.”

My memory of his response, paraphrased of course: “I’ve studied fisheries my whole life. And even I wouldn’t want to read that book.”

But of course, he was probably right. Who would want to read a book about cod? What was I thinking?

And I had further evidence as well: the national magazine that had shown brief interest in my article about the Russian trawler later rejected it as insignificantly newsworthy. (Though they did run a short news item including some of my information, without crediting me. What can you do?)

You know where this story ends, don’t you? Four years later, Mark Kurlansky published a little book called Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. Not only was it a bestseller, but it started an amazing trend in detailed and idiosyncratic “micro-histories” that persists today.

If this sounds like sour grapes, it isn’t. The cod story makes me smile every time I think about it. I think of the aging, burned-out professor and what I’ve learned since – people who are tired of their jobs are tired of everything; don’t listen to them!

I think of Kurlansky’s unlikely bestseller, which was a boon to all nonfiction writers interested in idiosyncratic topics. I think of myself, too young at the time to realize that it isn’t the subject that matters, it’s the way it is handled. And truly, I think my book would not have found the same audience as Kurlansky’s – I would have stressed the alarming environmental crisis over the history; I would have preached instead of charmed; I would have crammed in too much science and filled too many pages. I wouldn’t have thought to include recipes.

Today, I would do it better. But today is too late (never mind that one bestseller about cod might be all the market can tolerate). Now I’m interested in other things – ancient statues and World War II art collecting, bicycling and cuneiform last year, old cellists and Spanish history a few years before that. Thank goodness I’ve stopped listening to most people, most of the time, who tell me what “no one would want to read,” or I would have given up long ago.

When I do book signings, I still get people who come up to me and say, because they’ve traveled some place I have traveled or shared some interest : “I could have written that book.”

I just smile, and try to be encouraging.

I don’t say to them: “But you didn’t write it. You just thought about writing it.”

4 thoughts on “From Cold to Cod: Thoughts on Unwritten Books”

  1. A great post, Andromeda, with much to ponder, not the least of which being that it's far better to take the long objective view of how the cards fall than to get worked up over what might have been. Cod: who would have guessed? It was surprising enough with one book. I especially like what you said about not listening to people who are tired of their jobs; I'd expand that to include people who are tired of life. In fact, selective hearing may be among the most useful traits we can cultivate. Another good point: thinking about a book is way different than writing it. It's not just that thinking is easy and noncommital, but that the whole process of taking a topic or concept to the page shapes it in ways we can't begin to imagine, even as authors.

  2. Amen! There are times it is best not to listen to others. When writing my novel I spent 10 – 16 hours per day writing for three winters(because I'd worked hard to earn that time). An acquaintance asked if that wasn't being a bit obsessive. I said something like, "I've never written a book before so I wouldn't know. This is the way I do it." I wanted to say, "Oh, how did you write your novel?" But of course she had not written a book, had not written anything, so how could she know what it took? I actually set my writing aside for a couple of weeks because I wondered if maybe she was right. Sigh… Fortunately, I got a hold of myself and dove back into the writing until I had 200 pages and I had edited, rewritten, thrown out, and rewritten about twenty times. Writing that book brought me profound riches that did not include money but that did include vast satisfaction, joy, new knowledge, and what feels like the completion of some karmic task. I will not die saying, I wish I had written that novel. Besides, it was a great way to prime the pump. I'm no longer terrified of the blank page.

  3. I enjoyed the article, Andromeda, and on one hand I wish that you had written that book, and on the other I wonder which of your current works would never have been done, had you written that book.

    Maybe none of them would have. Maybe your canon would be completely different, because the entire dynamic of your career would have been different.

    As for me, the problem is different. I have so many books in me that I keep hopping back and forth. Doing a little bit of work on one here, then setting it aside to work on another, and then another, – always with the major interruption that survival requires – until none of them ever seem like they are going to get done.

    But they will.

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