Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Selling a Good Book

I had a typical meeting with a graduate student the other day concerning the proposal for his dissertation. He's perfectly intelligent and has plenty of interesting things to say, but somehow he doesn't quite say these things in his proposal. So I tried to help him find a way to begin his book, and in doing so, I brought up the examples of David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

When the four words "John," "Adams," "David," and "McCullough" appeared on the cover of a new book twelve or so years ago, I and a million other people who saw that cover knew immediately that we had to read the book. Yet McCullough still carefully spends time at the beginning of John Adams convincing prospective readers to spend hours of their lives on his efforts. And then the narrative begins with an arresting tableau: John Adams sitting on a horse in a snowstorm somewhere between his home in Braintree and Philadelphia, where he will attend the Continental Congress. The vivid, concrete picture captures the imagination and suggests the significance of the moment as the local farmer travels for the first time to help found a new republic, typifying a time when the scope of many people's political thinking suddenly exploded from the provincial to the national.

Everybody who saw Doris Kearns Goodwin on Ken Burns's Baseball was charmed by her, and everyone charmed by her wanted to read Wait Till Next Year as soon as it came out. But again, the master storyteller spends time at the beginning of her book making the sell. She tells about all the baseball questions she started fielding on her lecture circuit, and she tells about becoming an historian by keeping score while listening to the Dodgers games during the day and recounting the events for her father when he got home from work. Again we get a concrete picture that hooks us and at the same time suggests the significance of the theme of the book.

Good books begin by wooing readers. It's just one of the social graces. You don't go out on a first date, sit down to the table, and launch into your life story beginning with the details of your birth -- not if you want a second date. And books that want to be read don't begin by opening the floodgates of factual detail.

A few days ago I began a good book, one that begins by convincing the reader to continue reading. It makes the sell twice in fact: once through the words of the original author and once through the words of the translator. I've known for a long time that I would read the Church History of Eusebius. I love history. I love ancient books. I love the Church. So my encounter with this book was sealed in fate, and it began with the author and translator convincing me I had made the right decision.

Translator Paul L. Maier begins his introduction by calling Eusebius the father of church history and comparing him to Herodotus. As Maier explains it, Eusebius was the first to write a church history (after the biblical authors), and no one in ancient times copied his effort. As a result, many details and much quoted material are known to us only because of Eusebius. Maier goes on to describe Eusebius' life and his close association with Constantine, to list Eusebius' long catalog of works, and to explain what niche his new translation fills (it abandons the complex ancient sentence structure in favor of smoothly flowing modern English rhetoric). The introduction ends by saying, "Here then is the most important work of the most voluminous extant author, pagan or Christian, of the late third and early fourth centuries: the first history of the church ever written." I finished the introduction much clearer about the significance of the book I was about to start.

Eusebius himself then begins his book with an explanation of its contents and their importance. First he indicates that he will record the most important events in the history of the church and describe the most distinguished leaders in the most famous locations. Clearly the topic is weighty. Then he explains his method of poring through great numbers of documents and humbly indicates his debt to previous authors, pointing out, though, that he is the first to assimilate all this material. And then he begins his history of the Church not with the events of some mundane date but by going outside of time and recounting of the Bible's teaching on the Church's Founder as the preexisting Word and Wisdom of God. Eusebius could not describe a more important subject.

I've read almost half of the book now, and it has not disappointed. I'll have more to say about the contents in a future post.

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