“Never do things to be appreciated. It rarely works out.” This from Philip Galanes, in his weekly New York Times column “Social Q’s,” in response to a young woman complaining about her friends’ apparent lack of gratitude for a dinner party in which she had invested a great deal of time and money. This column is one of my pleasures in reading the Times: after columns of heavy analysis and portentous predictions of world disaster, simple, common sense responses based on observation of human behavior and the need we all have to get over ourselves.
It may be folly to do things just to be appreciated, but it may also be prudent to express sincere appreciation. A few weeks ago David Shenk wrote about one method authors use to express gratitude in “A Thankless Task,” his contribution to the “Author’s Note” column in the New York Times Book Review. He discusses the “Acknowledgements” appended to many books from the point of view of an author and a reader of nonfiction. He indicates that he reads the acknowledgements in deciding whether to read a book, and chooses partially on his liking or disliking the sources mentioned. He says he is becoming increasingly ambivalent about the value of this addition to books, as the form has become “calcified,” a litany of “the patient editor, the visionary agent, … the understanding spouse, … the generous colleagues, … the saintlike librarians ….”
I enjoy reading the acknowledgements section, particularly in the crime fiction I read most often. I’m glad to know that authors who venture into areas of forensics, or history, or ballistics, or any other field in which they lack expertise were wise enough to consult those who do know those subjects, and that the situations presented in the novel are realistic. I like getting the sense that although writing is a lonely occupation, the author knows he or she did not do it all alone, that the editors, agents, publicists, librarians, family and friends were necessary to the process. I enjoy seeing the names of people I have met. And twice, to my great surprise, I saw the name of someone I know intimately … me. Yes, some authors feel and show appreciation to the booksellers. It would be remiss of me not show appreciation here to the first author who “acknowledged” my shop and the efforts we make on behalf of the writers. Thank you, Jeff. It was many books ago for you and early days in bookselling for me, but remembering those few words still gives me “warm fuzzies.”
Reading acknowledgements gives me a sense of the author as a person. I have never sensed that the thanks offered to all the “supporting cast” was a mechanical exercise. Who is thanked and how they are thanked gives a glimpse of the writer’s personality and priorities. Those who thank the booksellers they have worked with gain some extra points with me; someone has made a special effort to get their work into the hands of readers, and they know it.
What about authors who don’t do acknowledgements? Shenk, in his essay, suggests that they may think that the work should stand on its own, or that this addendum is a distraction to readers and may even discourage them from reading the book if they don’t care for those thanked (often other authors), or that they don’t want to boast about connections and friendships. My experience, at least with crime fiction writers, leads me to a different conclusion. They are aware of the support and help of so many people that they can’t possibly name them all. One bookseller may have created a spectacular event, but ten others also put forth great effort to promote the book. How many pages should this section take up? And what if someone is forgotten? If a book doesn’t have acknowledgements, it doesn’t lead me to believe the author is ungrateful. But if it does, I enjoy the opportunity glimpse a little of the author’s life.
My work has given me an understanding of the process of getting a book to the reader and the privilege of meeting people involved in various stages of this process. What about the “ordinary” reader, the “end user” who just wants a good read? Do they even bother to read the acknowledgements? Unless they are ardent fans who attend conventions and know some of those named, does this section have any meaning? Apparently yes. Two years ago I received a letter from a relative living in Colorado. Our relationship is friendly, but had withered to Christmas card notes due to distance and having little in common. I was afraid of bad news; instead, I found a photocopy of the Acknowledgements page where a second author had been kind enough to mention my shop. There was a brief note expressing pleasure that my shop was doing well (i.e., still in existence) and reminding me of my visit there years before when he had showed me his favorite bookstore. A phone call followed. And a reconnection of the relationship. You never know what those few little words will produce. What I learned from this relative/reader is that he likes to feel that extra connection with the author, that glimpse of the real person who created the fiction.
I don’t hold booksigning events or handsell books I love or talk up authors whose work deserves attention expecting appreciation. These efforts are part of my business, and help it grow and thrive. But I’m human, and when that unexpected “thank you” appears, I can’t help but feel good, both about myself, and about the person offering the gratitude. It’s fun seeing it in print and knowing others will see it; but the handwritten notes, e-mails that are more than perfunctory social thanks, and kind words said to others that reach my ears through the grapevine are all equally welcome.
Appreciation is something we often feel but frequently fail to express. Remembering how it feels to be on the receiving end of a sincere “Thank You” should help us all remember to be on the giving end a little more frequently.