Skip to main content
No. 1550:
Finding the Book

Today, we wonder how to make a book. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

For years, listeners have asked when Engines would come out as a book. That's an unnerving question since the radio programs are tuned to the human voice and ear, not to silent paper. (It's like asking when a book will become a movie. Excellent books often make lousy movies.) The first person to ask for an Engines book was Bill Begel, then president of Hemisphere Publishing Corporation. He signed me on to write one eleven years ago. It was to be a heavily illustrated collection of the first year's programs.

A curious set of events followed: Begel sold his company to another company which then sold it to a third. The book came to rest with a technical handbook company where it lay forgotten. The project dropped off everyone's radar screen, even my own.

I should've realized then that I was trying to make a good movie into a bad book. But people who knew and liked the program kept asking for the published scripts. Meantime, another wrinkle pointed the way to the central problem.

When Engines went on the web, in 1997, the book that people had been asking for was right there - all the scripts with references, links, and pictures. However I immediately began getting requests that audio accompany the Web version. Engines really was an audio product. People go to the Web to find information, not for the companionship of sound - or of a book.

By then, yet another publisher had picked up the book and was trying to convert it into print. His company also went out of business before the book was published. But he then took a position with Oxford University Press, and he brought the book with him. When the senior editor at Oxford saw it, he said, "People won't read collections of short scripts. They'll go away feeling empty. People want to read a through-composed book."

I started to resist, but I knew he was right. Besides, the through-composition was there, in my head. It'd taken shape over the intervening years. It was a tissue that'd formed itself from all those radio programs.

I was startled to hear myself saying to him, "Okay, I'll go back and completely rewrite it." Within a few months the Lego blocks of the individual scripts had formed themselves into a sum-mary view of technology that I'd been forming for years. When the book had finally written itself, I read it with a peculiar kind of surprised third-party interest.

So the book could only come to pass after I'd learned a hard lesson. It was that the book cannot be the movie. One thing may become another, but only by undergoing metamorphosis. This book was there all the time. But I couldn't get at it without first stepping free of the radio program. I still love radio with all its wonderful transient immediacy. But to find the book I had to leave radio behind and enter a far different, and much older, world.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Lienhard, J. H., The Engines of Our Ingenuity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Front cover of The Engines of Our Ingenuity book

For more on the book, see the back cover by clicking here.