Good books are like icebergs – the text you read represents only a fraction of the work an author has done, and a fraction of the material that has gone into the making of it. A mistake an author can make is to try to say everything about a subject. You can’t, and you have to let go of that ambition or your book will be indigestible. Just as music needs its silences, so a book needs to breathe and to give you the space to interact with it. You have to sense when less really is more.
One of the ways you can explore the material beneath the surface of a book is to follow up any hints or footnotes, and one of the ‘secret pleasures’ of an author lies in placing such hints in the almost perverse knowledge that only a few people will follow the trail. (Richard Heygate and I did that in The Book of English Magic, deliberately leaving hints for the curious!) Perhaps… or maybe more people check out sources given in the text and footnotes than I imagine. Let’s find out! Please tick the box in the poll below.
Meanwhile let me give a concrete example. I have recently enjoyed reading Jonathan Black’s latest book, The Sacred History, and I’m looking forward to interviewing him for our podcast next month. His book is littered with extraordinary references that are well worth researching. A few examples from many:
The Oracle of the Dead at Baia: “Let this website take you to a place tucked away in the North West corner of the bay of Naples, Italy. Here lies the Terme di Baia where a curious set of buildings is set against a volcanic cliff. Hidden behind them, deep underground, there is a labyrinth of ancient tunnels and chambers dating back 2,500 years, carved out of solid volcanic rock. Is this the way to hell discovered by Dr. Robert Ferrand Paget in 1962?”
“In Gulbekian is that most satisfying of writers: someone who has pondered deep issues of our time enough to distill out some profound and disturbing insights. By any standard deriving from the last 50,000 years of human history, this is an apocalyptic time. The potential and dangers of our time are truly global; many of the threats – environmental, WMDs, poverty etc – are profound; yet much of the politicking about solutions operates at the level of facile soundbite and/or dismissive rhetoric, while an ad for a better cosmetic faces a magazine article on genocide or polluted water supply. The point is that contemporary culture is either dissociated (the optimistic view) or Janus faced. Gulbekian gives a succinct but powerful reading of these and other issues and suggests a way of individual action that rehabilitates the conscience and awareness of the individual. I commend it.” Professor Angus Jenkinson