If you throw a rock in Cambridge you’ll hit someone who’s written a book — or so the saying goes.
Donald Yacovone agrees. In fact, he’s said it himself, near the Smith Campus Center in Harvard Square, when asked whether he was a published author.
Yacovone is the co-writer, with Henry Louis Gates Jr., of 2013’s “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” (a companion guide to the PBS series of the same name); he also penned 1991’s “Samuel Joseph May and the Dilemmas of the Liberal Persuasion, 1797-1871” and is the editor or co-editor of at least six other works; he says he’s working on books nine and 10 right now.
“You’re kidding,” Yacovone said, upon hearing the premise of this story. “You’re kidding!”
We were not.
Over the course of an hour on a recent chilly Friday afternoon in Harvard Square, we happened upon six published authors among the roughly 150 people we asked on the street. (There were two others who said they’d written books, but we didn’t count them as neither would divulge titles so we could check Amazon as we did with the others.)
That’s about 4 percent, which may not seem that impressive (or likely that a rock thrower would have much luck randomly beaning a writer), but it turns out it’s not bad at all.
There don’t seem to be any statistics on which American cities have the highest number of authors per capita. We do know this, though: There were more than 1.5 million titles registered in 2017 with Bowker, which issues International Standard Book Numbers, or ISBNs, in the United States.
The nation’s population stands at about 328 million, according to the Census Bureau website. Statistically that means about 0.46 percent of Americans published a book last year. So stumbling upon a half dozen authors in the Square defied the odds.
It stands to reason why Cambridge might have more than its share of authors. The city is, after all, a notoriously bookish place, having made several online lists and topping one by Amazon of the 20 most “well-read’’ US cities, based on company sales.
Beyond that, Cambridge, home of Harvard and MIT, is undeniably a university city, and professors write more books than do most.
And in fact at least three of our authors worked at Harvard in some capacity.
Among that cohort was Eric Rosenbach, spotted walking along the border of Harvard Yard and the Square. He co-wrote “Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns That Killed Bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda” with Aki Peritz; the book came out in 2013.
Rosenbach works at the Harvard Kennedy School as a lecturer in public policy and co-director for the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Other Crimsons included Jonathan L. Walton and Walter Johnson, two friends returning from lunch near the Square.
It’s not the first time they’ve been featured in an article in Harvard Square, the two noted, though the last time was under more contentious circumstances: Walton was handcuffed during a 2017 protest against President Trump’s announcement that he would end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Johnson was one of two organizers of the protest, which was covered by the Harvard Crimson.
Walton, the Plummer professor of Christian morals and the Pusey minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard, published “A Lens of Love: Reading the Bible in its World for Our World” this year.
It’s his second book after 2009’s “Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism”; Walton is also a professor of religion and society at the Harvard Divinity School.
Johnson, the Winthrop professor of history and a professor of African and African American studies at Harvard, published his second book, “River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom,” in 2013. The first, “Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market,” came out in 1999.
Matthew A. J. Timmins, a Leominster short-story writer and novelist, was one of the exceptions to the Harvard rule, though only by degrees of separation — his wife works at the university. He self-published his first novel, a mystery titled “The Miseries of Mister Sparrows,” in 2015.
There was also Rad Dike, an artist, architect, and poet, who was passing through the Square for an appointment to sell prints of his artwork. He wrote “Architectural Common Sense: Sun, Site, and Self,” on architectural design, published in 1983.
While each had at least one published work, not all the books were available in the nearby Harvard Coop as Walton and Johnson’s were. We ducked into the bookstore with the two authors just to fact-check (and to get out of the cold). Sure enough we found both books.
As the two writers exited the Coop, they placed a copy of Walton’s on a table situated prominently near the entrance of the store to see whether the placement would spur sales.
Perhaps, we thought, we should get a hot drink and wait to see whether it made a difference. But we decided that’s an experiment for another day — preferably a warmer one.