There is wisdom in learning not to judge a book by its cover. But might there be merit in learning to test a book by its acknowledgements?
Acknowledgements—along with dedications, forewords, translator’s notes, prefaces, and the like—can be tempting to skip over as mere formalities, the necessary accoutrements of publishing. But recently I’ve come to consider these bookends as important waysigns to a larger reality. Here, in this small institutional practice of gratitude, we are reminded that there is no such thing as singular genius. Here, with customary nods and gestures to the humble hands and invisible minds that might otherwise go unrecognized, even the most self-important author testifies to the inescapable necessity of community. Here, in a few simple, heartfelt pages where writers testify to their reliance on others, we are reminded that friendship is no small part of the contributions the world remembers. Surely these words deserve more attention than the quick scan they typically receive.
The greatest acknowledgement I have ever read comes from Erma Fisk’s memoir The Peacocks of Baboquivari. I have no recollection of how I initially discovered this quirky treasure, but I was immediately taken with the late Fisk’s playful account of living alone in a remote cabin on Arizona’s Baboquivari Peak, where she voluntarily moved for five months in her seventy-third year of life to record and band birds for the Nature Conservancy. The premise alone is a winsome appeal to anyone who, like me, grows giddy at the thought of a well-to-do, bold-spirited woman venturing west from her Virginia cul-de-sac to chase wild birds in the sunset of life. But what really sold me on the book was Fisk’s honest and tender thanks to some little-known friends. Her note at the end of the book is dated, simply, “June,” and is addressed to her colleagues at the Nature Conservancy, “Bill and Alice, Scott and Liz.” It reads,
As you well know I bitched all winter. Not enough birds. Rain. Cold. Snow. No carpet of flowers as we thought spring would surely bring. No fantastic spring migration that everyone, not just you, pictured for me. No rare species. Through all my vicissitudes, none of your making, you patiently cared for me, fed me (blue eggs! asparagus!), photocopied my reports, brought up mail and friends, ran my errands, educated my ignorance. I rewarded you with complaints, snarls, and an occasional beer, and could only hope my affection showed through this critical crust. Now that I am back on the Atlantic coast with its pines, terns, and resort traffic, I want to tell you that every day in my sight looms that sun- or rain-lit bulk of Baboquivari. Those steep slopes, those golden cliffs of rhyolite, the sweep of valley and foothills, the miles of ocotillo that never did blossom for me in my plods in and out, are a part of me for all of my days. Now that it is too late I wish to thank you for my winter. Busy with your many activities you will forget me. Bless you, and the Nature Conservancy. I shall never forget you.
What Fisk captures so tenderly, so perfectly, is the gestational stage of creativity’s life. The beginnings are never wholly solitary, never all insight and clarity. Often it is rain-cold-snow, with no carpet of flowers and only an occasional beer as solace. What comfort to hear this spoken so plainly! Even more remarkable is Fisk’s keen self-awareness and humility toward those who generously and graciously bore with her through disconsolate days. She says what we all know deep down but too often fail to live: We need each other.
Individualistic values are on the rise worldwide, self-directed activity, uniqueness, and autonomy triumphing over still older norms of family relationships, interdependence, and social conformity. Meanwhile, 43 percent of Americans report feeling lonely or socially isolated. Do we really want to continue stoking the myth of the solitary genius?
Meanwhile book acknowledgements stubbornly buck both trends with their timeless testimony to the debt undergirding the literary pursuits we remember. Among the most common theme to emerge is the countlessness of the gifts given. Everything is retrospectively valued, from ideas and inspiration, to administrative support (typing, photocopying, copyediting) and food “(blue eggs! asparagus!),” to the cabin away from town.
In his best-selling book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, David Brooks speaks to this overwhelming reliance on generosity and friends too great to number. He writes, “In the first draft of this acknowledgments I listed out these valuable friends by name, but I was afraid of leaving out somebody who was generous to me. So I just say to my friends—around the country and around the world—you know who you are.” In her translator’s note to Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wisława Szymborska, Joanna Trzeciak remarks, “The list of those to be thanked, no matter how long, could never be exhaustive.” Indeed, the sentiment of feeling overwhelmed is easily the most common refrain. When given the task of reflecting on how a book came to be, writers of every stripe seem similarly overcome by the scope of help provided and the sheer volume of helpers to honour.
Trzeciak goes on to offer very specific and enthusiastic thanks to several key individuals, one of whom is her co-translator Marek Lugowski, who first introduced her to Szymborska. “[He] read and commented on the entire manuscript, offering seasoned judgment and undying inspiration.” And then there is Stephen King, who speaks of owing “an immense debt of gratitude” to fellow writer and friend Amy Tan for a conversation over Chinese food that resulted in his useful and entertaining primer On Writing. These I find to be especially tender acknowledgements. To say aloud, “I could not have done this without you,” is a valiant utterance, and a true one for anyone who pays even the smallest bit of attention.
Of colleagues, editors, and institutions, writers are particularly prone to gush. In On Writing, King extends his gratitude in the form of three playful and progressively shortened forewords, with the second of three serving as a worthy ode to the ever-classic The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, and the last to his editor Chuck Verril, noting, “Chuck, you were divine.” Still, John Steinbeck likely wins the prize in praise of his editor and dear friend Pascal “Pat” Covici, to whom he dedicated East of Eden. He writes,
Dear Pat, You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said, “Why don’t you make something for me?” I asked you what you wanted, and you said, “A box.”
“To put things in.”
“What kind of things?”
“Whatever you have,” you said.
Well, here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts—the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.
And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.
And still the box is not full. —JOHN
On a more customary note, Oxford editor Fiona Stafford prefaces her updated edition of The Lyrical Ballads by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth by recalling the “long-standing debts” she owes to several colleagues, while also praising the administrative staff who humbly served the work by noting that “those in the Academic Office at Somerville [College] have been cheerfully helpful in responding to various practical requests.” One imagines the relief Ms. Stafford seems to have felt each time her tedious request to track down a citation or retype a page of manuscript was met not with contemptuous scorn or a rolling of eyes, but instead a “cheerful” willingness to play along on her Victorian-era team. Her keen awareness that it could be otherwise is a testament to her humility and calibre as a person and colleague.
Extending beyond dependence and debt, authors of every background, age, and discipline find ways to testify to the gifts of pure delight that come from the support and affection of close friends and family. These are, almost without exception, so joyful and ineffably tender that one can almost feel each master wordsmith stretching to the farthest reaches of metaphor only to make peace with the simple truth that words will never wholly suffice. Consider Owen Barfield’s brief rededication of his 1928 masterwork, Poetic Diction, to his beloved friend C.S. Lewis as part of an introduction at its reprinting in 1951. He writes,
One final word: the dedication of this book remains unchanged. But as the pen-name which was printed on the flyleaf was abandoned by its owner shortly after the first edition appeared, I have now substituted his true name, to which his publications in many varied fields have since lent so much distinction. I do this rather in the interests of accuracy than as claiming any reflected share in that distinction, but I also grasp with both hands so opportune an occasion of rededicating this book in celebration of nearly half a lifetime’s priceless friendship.
Likewise Clive James extends a touching tribute to his wife, an accomplished Dante scholar, in the introduction to his modern English translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, where he grants her full credit for planting the seed. He writes, “Beside her lucid and scrupulous scholarship, a translation counts for very little. But I have done my best with it, always encouraged by the memory of how, in Florence, she first gave me an idea of what it meant to be in the service of her great poet.” One has the sense that this Florentine memory ranks high among their private cache of ordinary-but-divine intimacies common to lifelong affection. It is a gift to others to be reminded that such moments exist. Michael Polanyi articulates a similar appreciation of his wife in Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-critical Philosophy, echoing Fisk’s deeply human recognition of having, at times, been difficult, when he writes, “Finally, I want to express my admiration for a person who unhesitatingly shared with me the risks of this unusual enterprise and sustained year after year the stresses radiating from me as the centre of this unaccustomed activity; I mean my wife.”
In his lovely book Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, poet David Whyte reflects on the mark of true friendship, observing that “the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self, the ultimate touchstone is witness; the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.” The humble and heartfelt expressions of acknowledgement that litter the prefatory and concluding pages of books are a form of such witness. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the term “acknowledge” means “to accept or admit to the truth of” a thing, and also “to recognize the fact or importance or quality of” it.
In an age when a fair bit of data suggests that human connection is growing more tenuous and fragmented, and friendships are increasingly reduced to an abstract or fleeting association, it is encouraging to allow these short, personal pages to remind us of the simple truth that we depend on each other, we are hopelessly indebted to one another, yet we are also one another’s greatest delight. As Gandalf so poignantly reflects in the Fellowship of the Ring, “only a small part is played in great deeds by any hero.” Acknowledgements prove it is certainly true of writing, but it is comforting to think it could just be true.