As is usual among academics, my first book, Dream Worlds, is a revision of my dissertation project. Mine was directed by William Johnston of the History Department of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I shall always be grateful to Will for trusting me to do most of the work of finding and developing my own topic. He gave me superb advice at significant points, but he also gave me confidence to roam.
Part of this independence was a matter of circumstances. I began to develop this project when my husband and I (and our Saint Bernard dog) were living in South Carolina, far from Amherst and any university services I could access. I brought with me a pile of Xeroxed copies of texts and handwritten notecards, which have the advantage of being cumbersome enough so that you think about the quality of the information before you record it.
I distinctly remember the moment at my desk, piled high with this stuff, in the chilly back room of the South Carolina house, when I thought, “A lot of people have written about the history of technology from the point of view of production. Why don’t I focus on the history of technology as seen through consumption?” Actually, I outlined a book project that would cover both angles, but I only got the consumption part written. (I have never been tempted to finish the other part of the outline.)
I was alone in the house, and alone as a scholar in South Carolina, but there is always a zeitgeist even in apparently thin air. As it turned out, my bright idea of studying consumption was one that quite a few other scholars were having at the time. The 1980s saw a small flood of studies of “consumer society” and “history of consumption,” which has since narrowed to a trickle but has never ceased. Dream Worlds appeared close to the head of this freshet. It got me a job at MIT, and to this day people thank me for writing it. What more could one ask from a dissertation book?