Today, we ask, "Who writes our story?" 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.
Now and then, I get mail
addressed to the "staff," or to the "writers," of
The Engines of Our Ingenuity. The
tacit assumption is that a group of people write
this program; then the voice you hear recites it. I
didn't fully appreciate how disturbing that is
until I read a help-wanted ad in the New York
Ghostwriter needed by physician to quickly
prepare book for laymen from bare concept. Locate
key articles and facts, prepare outline, write and
edit manuscript. Subject: Control hypertension and
blood lipids through dietary fiber and ions.
So, in some near future, another self-help book on
diet and relaxation will turn up in the bookstores.
It'll be attributed to a doctor who didn't locate
the key articles, didn't prepare the outline,
didn't write the book, and who didn't even edit the
manuscript. I find that pretty frightening.
Technology and science suffer every time someone
tries to tell their story with detached affect. If
I ask you to write down my ideas, then my heart
will not be in them. Worse yet, your heart won't be
in them either. When that happens, technology and
science become empty drums indeed. If you or I have
ideas that're worth anything, we're obliged to
write them down ourselves.
I drove off to work, thinking about that ad and
listening to my car radio. An NPR essayist talked
about politicians who write books. Hoover and
Churchill were superb writers who produced superb
literature. "Where are they today?" he wondered.
"Maybe the public gets no more than it's willing to
He mentioned JFK's book, Profiles in
Courage -- a fine case in point. Kennedy
wrote it as he lay in the hospital after back
surgery, before he ran for president. It was
straight history -- a carefully researched study of
six acts of political heroism.
As the campaign heated up, Kennedy's opponents
accused him of having used a ghostwriter. Kennedy
had to scotch that one by producing drafts of the
book in his own handwriting.
The problem goes beyond writing. It rises up as we
live in a world of proxies -- secretaries calling
on behalf of bosses, companies hiring writers to
write on behalf of their engineers, people who are
willing to have others live life on their behalf.
Many fine technical writers do write about the work
of others. But such people always write under their
own names. In the end, every writer worth reading
writes in the first person -- maybe not in the
matter of pronouns, but certainly in the matter of
presence. At some level, every writer worth reading
offers us the gift of self.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds