Monday, October 27, 2008

An Honest Preface

The great literary critic and fellow blogger M. P. Johnsen once wrote a brilliant post about wimpy academic prefaces in "Preface Par Excellence," on his blog Causerie. In the post he derides the standard preface as follows:

The preface of nearly every "academic" work I've read in college and grad school contains some form of disclaimer. The author goes about thanking everyone who helped in the writing and research of the book and concludes by saying that any faults or errors in the book are attributable exclusively to the author. The disclaimer is a gesture of humility on the one hand, a way of saying that the brilliance of the text was the product of many but the faults [of] the product of one. But on the other it's an empty formality. Empty because it appears in every book without fail & because books of that sort have been read and proofread so often that there should be no errors at all. It's not very encouraging, after all, if someone begins a persuasive argument by saying, "Here's what I think. . . . if I'm wrong it's my own fault." Just think of the legal nightmares if litigators began their cases that way.

M. P. compares this standard, wimpy, preface with those written by the mustached German philosopher Nietzsche, who basically tells his audiance that if they don't understand his book it's because the reader didn't read it thoroughly enough, i.e. "ruminate" upon it, or, the reader failed to read and comprehend all of Nietzsche's previous works. Nietzsche wasn't about kissing babies and keeping friends; he was about vomitting truth and letting the reader sift through the spill.

I like M. P.'s arguement because it cuts through the mutual academic hand shaking that doesn't extend to the reader. I also like Nietzsche's approach to preface writing because he makes no appologies about his work and makes the reader stupidly guilty of any errors.

With that background, I recently read a preface that takes a little of both approaches. In Randolh B. Campbell's Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State, he writes the standard "thank you to all my colleauges..." preface but throws in a barb at the end, writing:

Finally, as is customary after acknowledging the help of others, I must admit that reamaining weaknesses and errors of omission or commission are my own fault. Why one of my friends did not catch them will always remain a mystery. (Just joking, guys.)

I wish Campbell would've omitted that last little "Just joking, guys," because I don't think he was joking. At least he shouldn't have been joking. I know the help of friends can't turn one's burlap manuscript into silk, but they should at least be able to blend it's patches.

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