End of an Era: On Finishing the First Book Project

A picture of the cover of the book Rebel Youth, which is a montage of various young people fighting with police officers on the streets of Toronto.For five years, four months, and fifteen days, this project has been with me, in one way or another [thanks Wolfram|Alpha for the date spread]. And on Wednesday, it’ll be done. It’s the end of a chapter in my life, and has me dealing with all the complicated feelings that transitions bring.

The last few months have seen me shepherding my forthcoming book, Rebel Youth: 1960s Labour Unrest, Young Workers, and New Leftists in English Canada, through the final publishing stages at the University of British Columbia Press. Copyeditor queries over the holiday break, and now the painstaking process of combing the proofs for typos (I’m oddly elated whenever I find one, because I’m pretty sure I’ve read each sentence about a hundred times now). It’s had me feeling a bit odd, actually.

I started Rebel Youth in the cold winter of 2008-09, during the long, acrimonious, and (for me), profoundly perspective-changing CUPE 3903 strike. I would picket Mondays and Wednesdays for ten long hours each day, bundled up in countless layers, with many people who would become hopefully life-long friends, but also profoundly dispiriting for a few reasons. On the ‘off’ days, I remember starting things off by reading old back issues of Canadian Dimension in the tranquil environs of the University of Toronto’s Pratt library, writing my proposal, and then kicking things off. Three days a week, reading about students and labour unions, and two days a week, seeing some of these issues still with us in that strike.

Over the next two plus years, the project came together: flying across Canada to interview people, consulting documents in dozens of archives, and writing every single day (much of which never made it into the final version). Throughout I was extremely lucky: I had grants to keep me going, and most importantly, a supervisor (Craig Heron) who treated every single chapter I wrote as if it was a peer-reviewed submission to an idealized top-tier journal. By that I mean that a few weeks after passing in a chapter, I had pages of feedback: conceptual issues, stylistic ones, down to page-by-page suggestions. My writing got better, my confidence improved, and one day if I supervise doctoral students I know that I’ve got the model that I can only aspire to emulate.

So Rebel Youth was with me for my entire time at York University, from strike to when I defended in November 2011. Defending was a wonderful moment, but I suppose it didn’t seem like as big a transition in hindsight. The book was still ahead, the book had been the plan all along, so even in the defence it was framed as a “next steps” process. It went onto the backburner a bit as I figured out what I was going to do with my life, before a mixture of luck and work saw me land in a postdoc and then a tenure-track position. Rebel Youth was back, and revising took four or five hours a day for much of 2012. I had to cut over a hundred pages, refine and reconceptualize key elements. And then it was standing in an airport security line at Pearson airport, about to hop on a plane to Vancouver in December 2012, that I received the peer reviews and it became clear that the book would eventually appear.

Over a year later, we’re almost at that stage. Rebel Youth has been with me since that first time, probably on Monday, December 1st, 2008 if my calendar logs are correct, that I stepped into a library. And on Wednesday, April 9th, 2014, I’ll hit send on an e-mail that forever removes my ability to change it.

It’s a bit scary. I work in a new area now, that of web archives and digital methodologies, but my fundamental goals remain the same: to give voices to people who otherwise don’t have voices, to find out what makes society function, to discover and examine the forces of social change, and so forth. I know there’ll be book reviews that sting when it comes out, that perhaps readership will be lower than even my lowered expectations, but that’s always part of putting your work out in public for people to do with it what they will.

But nearly every day for the last five years, this project has been a part of it in some way. Hopefully there will be future books – The Historian’s Macroscope is nearing completion, and on Friday I just crossed the 30,000-word threshold on a new, currently under-wraps sole-authored monograph draft. It was Rebel Youth, though, that made me a scholar, that taught me how to be a historian, and I feel like I’m going to be pretty sad once it’s actually gone.

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