Q: Lois, you’re about to post the final chapter of The Overweight Brain: How Our Obsession with Knowing Keeps Us From Getting Smart Enough to Make a Better World. Can you talk to us about the roots of this project and writing an interactive, online book?
Lois: It came about as a combination of the possibilities it offered and the non-possibility of doing it otherwise. I wanted this to be a non-academic book. Despite having a good track record with academic publishers such as Routledge and others, I knew it wouldn’t fit their criteria. I would have to go to the general trade press. More and more academics were going this route – people like Angela Duckworth, Carol Dweck and Keith Sawyer and others. I wanted a platform where I could raise important conceptual issues related to social scientific research and theorizing with “regular” people.
I had a lot to say. I was trying to find a vehicle to say it in a way that our growing community of supporters might find useful…
I had a lot to say. I was trying to find a vehicle to say it in a way that our growing community of supporters and those who have embraced our social therapeutic, playful-philosophical approach might find useful for their own organizing, teaching and development of community. I wanted this book to help non-academics engage how the world is and the limitations of how we see it.
Q: Tell us about the process of shopping this concept around.
Lois: I asked some colleagues about how they went about getting general audience books published, and researched about two-dozen presses and learned that they required that you approach through an agent. So I sent the proposal to about a dozen agents. The few that did respond told me that, while very interesting, the idea was too broad or didn’t speak to an issue that readers already cared about (like being overweight or having dyslexia or whatever.)
I wanted to write about things that people did not even know they could or should think about.
I wanted to write about things that people did not even know they could or should think about. Also I knew that I wasn’t writing a how-to book; I wasn’t writing to a niche audience, and I didn’t want to follow the formula of laying out a set of slick narratives. So my book idea didn’t fit with the trade publishers either.
I decided to go the self-publishing route. There are more and more academics who self-publish when they want to say what they have to say without conforming to someone else’s style. The upside of this approach is that the lag time to publication is non- existent. And you retain the ability to fashion the book any way you want. I could also keep the cost reasonable (unlike academic books that are typically upwards of $50.)
Q: Can you say more about how you used this format to raise questions for the reader that “they didn’t know they could or should be thinking about?”
Lois: I had the idea to use my blog to post chapters as they were written and ask for feedback. I was hoping to hear about how readers were using it. The feedback I got was positive and enthusiastic. Also privately, I heard a bit about how people were using and reading it. It sure got people thinking! (And sharing their gratitude.) But it didn’t explode on the website with 100s of comments, as I had hoped.
The Taos Institute webinar went very well. No one complained that it wasn’t an academic book!
Then Sheila McNamee suggested that I do a webinar to discuss the book for the Taos Institute Associates. That was very telling. She could have suggested one of our academic books, but she didn’t. She suggested The Overweight Brain. The Taos Institute webinar went very well. No one complained that it wasn’t an academic book! They were very engaged – some 30 or so professionals who were strangers to me.
Q: Is this book unusual in offering conceptions that are very sophisticated and challenging, but not as an “academic” text.
Lois: In science there are a lot of them. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry; Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, many others. These are actual academics, researchers and scientists, speaking to a broad audience.
I had to figure out a way to say things that speak to people…It had to invite them to think about something.
Q: And in the arena of philosophy, psychology and education, is this less frequent?
Lois: My bookshelf has about 7 books that kind of do that – like David Weinberger’s “Too Big to Know,” in the tech area. And there’s Michael Puett’s Life Lessons from Chinese Philosophy, which I enjoyed. But I don’t know how many people read them. In psychology, specifically, Thomas Szasz’s Myth of Mental Illness was a big hit in the late 1950s. Since then….
Q: What was it like for you to write a book for a general audience that was enjoyable and engaging, and that readers could grapple with?
Lois: The experience was, “I’m not going to water this down!” So I had to figure out a way to say things that speak to people. So, it had to be relevant (e.g., about a common situation in people’s lives). It had to invite them to think about something. So in this last chapter, for example, I explicitly say, “Look, before you say you CAN’T ‘yes-and’ someone you disagree with, ask yourself these three questions.” And I know that the questions I’m suggesting are ones that they’ve never asked themselves. So it’s both including a relevant situation or experience, but with a twist, because I’m bringing up something that they may never have thought about.
Q: You and Fred Newman spent decades advancing a practice and supporting people to philosophize in everyday life. Can you say more about how you see the book in this light?
It’s like putting on a different set of glasses. I’m offering bifocals.
Lois: The thing-ification of our culture and the “me-ness” v. “you-ness” or “we-ness” is so pervasive and so over-determining of our lives, that to question that, or to offer an alternative is so important. Learning to ask a whole other kind of question: such as, “What impact will saying what I’m thinking right now have on the relationship with my sister?” It’s like putting on a different set of glasses.
I’m offering bifocals. You can still see the “truth” / “non-truth” you always see. But you can also see what is being said as completely relational and building material for the relationship. Things are not just what they are.
It’s a process question I’m asking people to consider. It’s a reminder for them that relationships are something that must be constantly produced. You don’t just have the fossilized behavior. Or you don’t have to. So these questions I’m suggesting for people are an invitation to break out of the fossilized behavior and to add something to their repertoire.
I hope that the book helps people play and create stuff…that you can hang your hat on but that isn’t banal or isn’t a systemization or a watering down of anything.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say to Overweight Brain readers?
Lois: Some of the fun was inventing things like the “X-Y-Z” motif in the last chapter. It gave me such delight! I hope that the book helps people play and create stuff like that that you can hang your hat on but that isn’t banal or isn’t a systemization or a watering down of anything. Which is one of the things I’m most pleased about so far. I resisted systemization and still offer people some “hat-hangers!”