Thursday, December 26, 2013

To Write, or Not to Write, That Is the Question

Guest post by Vijay Vazirani

Our field has been blessed with some great books: classics such as Knuth's volumes and Garey & Johnson literally got the field going, and the books of Lovász brought much clarity in difficult, important areas. The new millennium brought a plethora of new books by famous TCS researchers including Arora, Barack, Goldreich, Kleinberg, Nisan and Tardos. With an astonishing 33 short titles in theory, Now Publishers has virtually created an assembly line for producing books.

Even so, when faced with the prospect of writing a new book, I am filled with trepidation and self-doubt: Am I up to the effort needed? Do I have a genuinely new point of view to expound? If so, have I figured out the "right'' format and style for expounding it in the simplest and clearest manner?

The issue arose when I decided to co-teach, with my able postdoc Ruta Mehta, the course Equilibrium Computation in Spring. With her characteristic enthusiasm, Ruta has practically forced me into a long-term commitment of writing a book on this topic. However, knowing what it takes, so far I have managed to resist an unequivocal "yes".

Most people would say it is a losing proposition -- the gains are typically minuscule compared to the toils. So why do so many people write books? I can imagine several reasons, but best to leave this discussion to my esteemed colleagues who are probably yearning for something to ponder on in this holiday season ...

That brings me to another question, "Are some of the books written in this millennium eventually going to be regarded as classics in the style of Knuth or Lovász's books?'' One could look at citation counts or average citations per year to get an "objective'' reading of the situation. However, when one is talking about true class, such crude estimators are clearly not the way to go.

Your thoughts are eagerly sought ...


  1. Thanks to Tim Gowers for a fine suggestion

  2. Lance confesses "When faced with the prospect of writing a new book, I am filled with trepidation and self-doubt: Am I up to the effort needed?"
    Scott Aaronson's recent Shtetl Optimized column "My quantum computing research explained, using only the 1000 most common English words" ingeniously solves the "too long/hard, did not read/write" problem by applying the XKCD Up-Goer V restriction

    Already Gil Kalai has posted an "Up-Goer V" riposte, and Gil's popular MathOverflow wiki "A book you would like to write" has provided an on-line venue for my own application-oriented "Up-Goer V" book-preface.

    Q  Does *anyone* read long books any more? Are "Up-Goer V" essays showing us the future the 21st century future of STEM publishing? Lance, what would an "Up-Goer V" preface look-like for your book?

  3. No John, it's not Lance who confesses. I think it's really poor to write a random comment like that one and not even properly read the post beforehand.

    1. Anonymous, you are entirely correct. I saw "posted by Lance Fortnow", but overlooked "guest post by Vijay Vazirani", for which apologies are tendered.

  4. It's not a bad idea to keep following how books are written. Gower's suggestions of using hyperlinks and other stuff is cute but that's that. At the end of the day, who do u want to please ? who is ur audience ? Look, you want to write a textbook and not necessarily webpage book. There's nothing wrong with having a pdf version that has hyperlink features but can be printed out coherently as a textbook format.

    The web has been around for how long ? And the idea of a textbook has been around of how long ? I'm just pointing out the obvious here that textbook design has undergone changes but ultimately there's a definitive style that hasn't changed and that for a good reason. Just like the keyboard design has been undergoing changes, but there's a definite keyboard design for typing. (and yes, it's kinda not ergonomically optimal to type on a touchscreen as u and the rest of the world might have realized by now.) So definite features have already reached a certain optimum and u can stick with those.

    Lance loves gadgets such as the kindle. I think there are horrible devices. I want a physical copy, with index, on paper, something I'd like to feel, something i can physical mark and annotate. something that's gonna last power outage and broken screens. Of course, i have a problem with carrying heavy books around, but here's the snag, u can't optimize all criteria.

  5. re writing books on a blog or on internet, 2nd that motion a lot. ryan odonnell "analysis of boolean functions" is pioneering and deserves an award. unfortunately there are some aspects of blogs that make them "not-so-well organized" (esp. cf. books) but that can be somewhat overcome with TOCs of links etc.