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On Writing for Readers

I admire the impulse that drives this essay by William Germano, in which he argues for the idea of an academic book as a “machine for changing readers.” I’m not crazy about the machine analogy, but anything that would encourage academic writers to think more about their readers, and the effects that scholarship might have upon the lives of those readers, is a darn good thing.

But I would be very surprised if anyone reading Germano’s essay came away with a clearer sense of what he or she should do in order to write suitably lively academic books. The essay is pretty thin on details. And again, I’m not really sure that the machine analogy does much work in that regard. I have tried for a long time to write academic works that are vivid, interesting, challenging – all the virtues that Germano argues on behalf of. Of course, I’ve tried to do the same thing in my nonacademic writing; in fact, I’d like to believe that as my career has gone on there’s been a kind of convergence on a similar impetus, a similar character, a similar style or feel.

What is it that all of my writing has in common, or that I would like for it to all have in common? I think primarily it’s that it should offer some of the same structural, organizational, and linguistic pleasures – yes, pleasures – that fiction has, or the personal essay. Even in my most theoretical work, I’ve tried to think of my task as that of attracting and keeping the attention of thoughtful readers, telling them stories, doling out fascinating details that make them want to read more, keeping them to some degree in suspense until the end of any given tale. Storytelling is, for me, the fundamental mode of writing; it’s the foundation on which everything else is built. In that sense I don’t think of writing works of literary theory as being different altogether in kind from writing a personal narrative. It’s all about trying to reach human readers, writing to them as their fellow human being. Insofar as I have had any success as a writer, I really do think that it is primarily due to my keeping that goal in mind.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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