Books Are Made Through Conversations

Writing a book can often feel like an isolating endeavor. It requires finding a wellspring of concentration, focus, and inspiration in the midst of a busy life. It is a process that involves quieting the mind as much as it demands finding and sustaining an intellectual spark – something that will carry you through long hours in front of the computer as you grapple with voice, character, or data as well as the slog of peer review-generated revisions or picking one’s way through an index. In this sense, books are very unglamorous things. They are at once beautiful and fragile, for all the ways they seem to be paragons of permanence, even in virtual form. Books are made through conversations – with oneself, with others, with ideas.

Sienna Craig working with two Tibetan medical doctors/colleagues in Mustang, Nepal

My latest book, Healing Elements: Efficacy and the Social Ecologies of Tibetan Medicine (University of California Press, 2012), involved more than a decade of research and many conversations with interlocutors in Nepal and Tibetan areas of China. This ethnography is about the defense and transformation of traditional medicine in the 21st century and about what it means to say that a medicine “works.” It is about what Tibetans call their “science of healing” and about how and why we humans suffer and fall ill. At its heart, though, the book renders a set of relationships with people who have shaped me – as a scholar and as a person. In this sense, the book belongs as much to me as it does to my dear friend Gyatso, a fourth generation healer from the Himalayan region of Mustang, Nepal, or to Mingkyi, a vivacious Tibetan medicine practitioner and anthropologist who lives between Lhasa and Oxford, not quite an insider in either world but somehow, remarkably, at home in both.

Prof. Craig and her research assistant in Xining, Qinghai Province, China in front of the Tibetan Medical Hospital where she did research

Pieces of this book predate my arrival at Dartmouth in Fall 2006 and include fragments of my PhD dissertation. Other passages were first shaped for academic articles and then had to find their way, skillfully, into the book’s narrative in new ways. I wrote a great deal of the text by engaging in another sort of conversation with my field notes: writing my way through these rough and ready versions of ethnographic reality, polishing them, lending them a sense of structure and coherence. That is to say the process of writing one’s way from notes to finished text transforms the dynamic reality of fieldwork into something more fixed, if no less real. Experiences like butterfly wings pinned up against a spot in time, affixed to argument. Sometimes I find this process deeply creative – liberating, even. Other times I find it profoundly constraining. In both moments, though, writing remains joyful. It is a gift and a luxury as much as it remains a necessity, the currency with which I am valued and earn my keep as an academic.

The Dartmouth Library and its people helped to shape this book in many ways; I will end by mentioning one. I wrote much of this book and revised the text in its entirety on the second floor of Rauner Library. I found necessary solitude and solace in the calm of the room: empty first thing in the morning, filled with undergraduates dozing beneath chemistry textbooks or Russian novels by afternoon. Sometimes from this perch I felt like a bird nesting in one of the trees on the College Green. The building sheltered me, allowed me space to breathe, while its grand windows provided a certain glimpse onto lived reality – life beyond the book, outside of the text, in the world.

-Sienna Craig, Dept. of Anthropology

Prof. Craig’s latest book, Healing Elements: Efficacy and the Social Ecologies of Tibetan Medicine, is included in the current Dartmouth Authors book display in the King Arthur Flour café in Baker-Berry Library.

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