Harrison Middleton University



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December 2, 2022

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I used to whiz right past any additional sections of a book. Focused only on main content, I often skipped the introduction or preface, background material, acknowledgments or footnotes. In other words, I used to skip a lot of text. I chalk this up to being a lazy student, but just in terms of cost effectiveness alone, clearly I wasn’t getting my money’s worth.

I am not sure when my behavior began to change, but slowly, over time, I started reading everything. Now, I know about inks and font styles, publishers and locations. It’s nearly vital to know who edited and translated the text. This growing curiosity led me to an astonishing experience. Recently, while reading Trace: Memory, History, Race, and The American Landscape by Lauret Savoy, I noticed that one of her mentors was also one of mine. For some reason, this made a huge impression on me. I reread most of the book through that lens, and found that, at times, I could almost hear my mentor’s voice, even though he has long since departed earth. What an astonishingly rich experience.

I began to wonder: when did acknowledgments become mandatory? They often include notes on who should be thanked, such as donors, mentors, previous authors in the same discussion, teachers, family, etc. The lists can sometimes feel tedious, maybe even like a checked box. At other times, however, the acknowledgments can be entirely enlightening, as I experienced with Trace. Ayden LeRoux explains that this section offers one more way to get to know an author, and if our goal is to understand an author’s viewpoint, then the acknowledgments are a great beginning.

On the flip side, however, Sam Sacks writes that the acknowledgments are bloated, superficial stabs at thanking everyone, including the pets. I agree in part with his perspective, but nonetheless still find the acknowledgments more alluring than distasteful. He also laments that the dreaded section might run three pages or more. All true, and yet still, I am unswayed.

I offer three examples of acknowledgments that I find useful. Take them as you wish.

First, The Great Books Foundation’s publication of Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian uses the Acknowledgments page to note original publication date, original publisher and translators. Perhaps this page would be better titled: Permissions? Either way, it provides essential information.

Next, I like to compare translations. Often, however, translations leave few traces of who or what came before. For this reason, I note Stephen Mitchell’s work on the Tao te Ching as one example among many. He mentions the sources of his research as well as past translations that he consulted. Mitchell also credits the authors that suggested edits for his translation. In other words, the acknowledgments page in a translation might offer resources for translators and researchers, which is invaluable. In this same vein, anyone who wants to translate will realize how difficult it is to gain permissions for contemporary works. Rather, most translators will advise you to work with older texts. In this case, the last pages of Emily Wilson’s version of The Odyssey basically reads as a how-to guide.

Finally, the acknowledgments section in Trace runs five pages. An egregious length to some. And yet, it makes perfect sense that a memoir, a book of memories, runs long on acknowledging past and present influences. I realize the automatic response will be: shouldn’t that all have been said within the book itself? Perhaps. But in this case, I count the Acknowledgments as the final chapter.

Whether you agree with it or not, the acknowledgments section might offer beneficial information. Besides, you paid for the text, why not read it all?

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