Describe your latest book.
My new book, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World
, is a sequel of sorts to How We Got to Now
, the book and PBS series I did a few years ago. Like How We Got to Now
is a history of innovations that helped shape the world we live in today; it's filled with a similar cast of eccentric tinkerers and visionaries and jumps from discipline to discipline and across many historical periods the way most of my books do. But Wonderland
is also trying to make what I think is an important argument about the forces that drive historical change. A surprising amount of big shifts in technology, or science, or politics can be at least partially attributed to activities that started out as purely playful ones: people just trying to amuse each other with new experiences. Delight deserves to be recognized as one of history's prime movers, right alongside the usual suspects: conquest, nationalism, the quest for freedom, religious belief. Wonderland
takes the reader from the exotic taste of spices like clove and cinnamon that first brought a global marketplace into existence, to the dazzling colors of calico and chintz that helped jumpstart the industrial revolution, to the automated toys that led to the first programmable computers. Watching what people do for fun today turns out to be one of the most reliable ways of predicting the future.
When did you know you were a writer?
I wanted to be a writer from about age 15 onward, so in a sense it has been a consistent identity for me for a long time. But the kind of writer I was going to be kept changing. I did a lot of creative writing in high school: I wrote poems, short stories, and two short plays. Then I went to college and grad school and thought I was going to be a full-time academic who wrote books that would occasionally cross over to a popular audience. (Edward Said
was one of my grad school mentors and I suppose a kind of role model for the career I wanted to have.) And then slowly in my 20s I got interested in writing about science and technology — which had not been a focus before then, particularly science — and I slowly began to settle into the sci/tech history-of-ideas writer than I suppose I am today.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I have two little studies — one in Brooklyn and one in our place in Marin County, California — and I guess they look the way you might imagine them: a big computer, a bunch of books scattered around, old coffee cups that I should have cleared out a day ago. I imagine the surprising thing would be that they're both surrounded by musical equipment: guitars, keyboards, microphones, etc. I am an extremely passionate and extremely unambitious amateur musician. I love to play and record music in my study, pretty much entirely for my own benefit. It's a great way to close things down after a day of writing: take out a guitar or sit down at the piano and work on a few new tracks for a song.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
In writing terms, I love to think about the macro-structure of a book: how the chapters are going to be organized, how to weave certain themes in and out. Most of my books have very open-ended structures; they rarely follow a chronological sequence of events, and so there is a lot of potential flexibility in terms of where all the various arguments and stories can go. I spent months and months, for instance, trying to figure out the right way to organize my book Where Good Ideas Come From
; for a long time that book was organized according to a completely different set of principles. But the thing about structure is that it's one of the qualities in a book that people only notice when it's done poorly. There are some things I figured out in the structure of my book The Ghost Map
that I am as proud of as anything I've done in my career, and no one has ever mentioned them in a review or in their comments to me about the book. I think readers appreciate these things subliminally, of course, but it's funny to care so much about something that your readers won't always be conscious of when they read you.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
Every now and then with my more historically focused books, I'll have a line where I'll say that some small fact — the name of someone, or the location of some event — has been lost to history, and this will inevitably trigger a wave of detective work from some of my readers, who will write in months later to report that they've spent weeks in the archives somewhere and have in fact uncovered the missing data point. Ghost Map
in particular seemed to trigger that kind of sleuthing: in that book, the whole outbreak is ultimately set in motion by an infant who comes down with cholera, who had historically been known only as Baby Lewis — her first name having never been part of the public record. But sure enough, someone sent me a detailed email after the book came out explaining how they had tracked down Baby Lewis's first name using available archives. Sadly, I can't remember what it was — but don't let that discourage you from doing further sleuthing on my behalf!
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
I would say playing video games is a guilty pleasure but 1) I wrote a book called Everything Bad Is Good for You
that argued that games were making us smarter, so it shouldn't be a guilty pleasure, and 2) I don't seem to have enough time to play video games anymore, since they are now so complicated that it takes weeks just to be able to enjoy them.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
At some point when we were selling my second book, Emergence
, we hit a crossroads in terms of the proposal and the potential publishing houses interested in it, and my wonderful agent Lydia Wills said to me, "You know, Steven, you shouldn't just be thinking about things in terms of this one book. You're going to write many books over your life; you should think about how this one fits in that longer arc of your career, not just what it's going to mean for the next few months or year." I think about that all the time — now almost 20 years and eight books later. I'm already sketching out vaguely in my head the kind of books that I want to write 10 years from now, and how they might differ from what I'm writing now. I suppose what's true of the content of the books is also true of the way I think about my career: I'm always trying to take the longest view possible.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of eight bestsellers, including How We Got to Now
, Where Good Ideas Come From
, The Invention of Air
, The Ghost Map
, and Everything Bad Is Good for You
, and is the editor of the anthology The Innovator’s Cookbook
. Most recently, he is the author of Wonderland
. He is the founder of a variety of influential websites — including outside.in — and writes for Time
, The New York Times
, and The Wall Street Journal
. He lives in Marin County, California, with his wife and three sons.