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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Writing a book -- Today

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, January 10, 2016


Mike Gray has a marvelous knack of picking just the right book to give me for a Christmas gift.  Being the Assistant Director of the library system, I guess we are around each other enough to know each other’s reading interests.


The 1994 publication, “No Ordinary Time: Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt – The Home Front in World War II” by Doris Kearns Goodwin was under my tree just for me.


Mike had heard me rave about the PBS series about the Roosevelts, and my delight with the author Doris Kearns Goodwin, and he knew that some of the PBS series was based on the Pulitzer Prize for History book that I had somehow never read.


My wife watched as the book sat next to my chair at home with a bookmark that moved around to the various sections of the book that covered American history from 1939 to 1945.


Librarians can be irritating readers.  I started with the index to see how complex it was, and worked backward into the bibliography and the 70 pages of extensive “Notes” in Goodwin’s book that even contained two pages of “A Note on the Sources” as well as a preface and afterword.


Enough to cause a librarian to smile for an hour!


Bad enough is that librarians often don’t read a book in order.  We often jump around here and there working from the table of contents to chapters of a nonfiction book that interests us.


Doris Goodwin has an amazing ability to take history from numerous sources, document them, and tell a story that transforms dibs and dabs of information into smooth text that pulls you into the next adventure.


I found myself gracefully gliding through the stories in the book, like a spoon through my favorite rice pudding.


The book began with the evening of May 9, 1940, as Nazi Germany was invading Belgium in a continuation of the Sept. 1939 invasion across Europe.


Goodwin set-the-stage by discussing the occupants of the 2nd floor of the White House as it appeared at the end of Roosevelt’s second term.


Secretary of Commerce and Roosevelt confidant Harry Hopkins occupied the Blue Room Lincoln Study, the President’s mother and only-daughter were across the hallway, Eleanor was in the southwest corner, and the Presidential speechwriters and anyone visiting might be in the Lincoln Bedroom.


Roosevelt’s physical limitations from polio, kept well-hidden at the time, are now included in the 800 page book.


Goodwin has the ingredients of a great book – she has a story to tell and the ability to tell it; the basic ingredients that every successful needs, and many today don’t have.


Goodwin is pictured at the end of the book with her Research Associate, and mention is made of the “Editors at Simon & Schuster,” the publisher of the book.


And there is the 2nd missing ingredient of many of today’s books, an Editor.


In the standard format of searching for a publisher, and being assigned an Editor, every book produced is reviewed and read critically by an Editor since the publisher is spending their money to develop, produce, publish, and promote a book.


Today, the availability of self-publishing and pay-to-publish removes the editing and the promotion factors, and we are left with books which the author can’t understand isn’t “best sellers.”


Every author feels they are a great writer, until someone else reads their work.


With my limited experience with writing for a standard publisher, I had written the Preface to the 2005 “Steubenville” book and the Editor returned my finest prose with a comment to “start over.”


Even in Goodwin’s book, she shows the editing and rewrite of Roosevelt’s famous speech, where the phrase “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date will live in infamy” was originally written as “a date which will live in world history.”


The one page text contains 15 other changes which were made between the draft and actual presentation before Congress.


There would be a lot of even greater books produced today, if the author spent as much time as Goodwin did with an Editor.