The Book I Didn’t Write

I didn’t write a book a decade or so ago, titled Seeds at the time. It was going to be about, well, seeds.

I had in mind a book that would cover topics such as the biology of seeds and how early farmers selected the crops they grew from wild plants. I imagined discussing agricultural practices related to saving seeds, and how crop diversity on farms had changed over the 10,000 or so years of human agriculture.

There even was a physical file in which I stuffed random information, in a cabinet that’s now almost empty since computers have made hard copy filing almost extinct.

My seed file is eclectic, including a packet of open-pollinated squash seeds, a few business cards, an article from Science magazine about seed banks, and pamphlets about an eco-organic plant sale, heritage seeds in Canada and a then-upcoming international world exhibition about organic farming.

I never did get around to writing Seeds, and doubt I ever will, but the idea popped up again the other day while I was browsing a Seattle bookstore and saw the new book Seedtime: On the History, Husbandry, Politics and Promise of Seeds. It’s by Scott Chaskey, a New York State poet/farmer widely considered the founder of community-based sustainable farming.

I got quite excited seeing his book. My first thought was that Chaskey’s book validated my most excellent idea, and I couldn’t wait to read the book I didn’t write.

Except: turns out it’s not my book. The only similarity is that the word “seeds” is in both our titles. Otherwise, his book bears no resemblance to what I had in mind. His voice is more the poet than the scientist, with undertones of mythology and spirituality, flowery descriptions of seeds and poetic waxings about farming and the spirit of the land.

I did write a book once that was published at the same time other authors came out with similar books, on genetically modified crops. Mine, Travels in the Genetically Modified Zone, was written in the early 2000’s, when GM crops were new to the marketplace. I’d hoped to be first out of the post on the subject, and imagined writing the hot-off-the-press New York Times bestseller on this topic of consuming public interest.

But, other books on GM crops came out within a few months of mine, a couple just before and a few just after. We shared the wealth of readers, and none of us hit that best seller home run. I read them all, and what struck me was how different each was, with that endless variety of authors’ voices that make reading such a delight.

That lesson of voice has stayed with me. There are many, many books on almost any subject; upwards of 2 million new books are published globally every year, 290,000 in the U.S. and 20,000 in Canada. Each is infused with the author’s distinctive writing rhythm, each telling a unique story no matter how similar their topics.

One dictionary definition of “voice” is “the distinctive style or manner of expression of an author or of a character in a book,” but I’m fond of another meaning: “the range of pitch or type of tone with which a person sings.”

That’s something to celebrate, the range of pitch and tone with which authors make their writing sing.