When I finished the book, I thought a lot about why I loved it so much. I’m a professor, after all! We’re supposed to take everything apart.
I found my answer on page 25.
I realized that the book appealed to me at a number of levels. The story, of course. It’s gruesome, fascinating, and compelling. The architecture of the story-telling too. Larson’s attention to the details of the story’s construction leap from the page. But, there, on page 25, architecture and storytelling all came together:
“[Root] envisioned digging down to the first reasonably firm layer of clay, known as hard-pan, and there spreading a pad of concrete nearly two feet think. On top of this works would set down a layer of steel rails stratching from one end of the pad to the other, and over this a second layer at right angles. Succeeding layers would be arranged the same way. Once complete, this grillage of steel would be filled an discovered with Portland cement to produce a broad, rigid raft that Root called a floating foundation.”
I didn’t realize it as I was reading…but I had just learned how to build a skyscraper! And as a native Chicagoan, I can never look at those gargantuan buildings the same way.
I think Cynthia Crossen, who writes the Wall Street Journal’s “Book Lover” column, explains it even better than I do. Take a look at her recent article “Learning While You Read.” She’s talking here about historical fiction–but the best nonfiction writers are also the ones who pair impeccable research with meticulous attention to narrative.
Frankly, I’ve always wondered why more of us in higher education don’t craft more accessible stories. After all, in my classes, I tell stories all the time to lure my students into history (in my case, the history of medicine).
Yet, until recently, I had not found the courage to link research with compelling storytelling in my own writing. And, believe me, it takes courage–bucking as it does some long-standing conventions in academic publishing.
So now one of my favorite quotes is this one, again from Larson:
“I write to be read. I’m quite direct about that. I’m not writing to thrill colleagues or to impress the professors at the University of Iowa; that’s not my goal….I want to be accessible and I want to convey something.” [Full interview here]
Great advice! As I burn the midnight oil to wrap up my next book (coming out with Norton next year), I don’t think that I’ve ever enjoyed my research and writing more.
Holly Tucker is Editor of Wonders and Marvels. Read more about Holly here.