A couple of years ago, after reading Neil Gross‘ excellent biography of Richard Rorty, I sent him a short note of appreciation, telling him how much I enjoyed his book. Gross wrote back; he was clearly pleasantly surprised to have received my email.
I mention this correspondence because it is an instance of an act that I ought to indulge in far more often but almost never do: writing to let an author–especially an academic one!–know you enjoyed his or her work.
Most academic writing is read by only a few readers: some co-workers in a related field of research, some diligent graduate students, perhaps the odd deluded, excessively indulgent family member. (I am not counting those unfortunate spouses, like mine, who have pressed into extensive editorial service for unfinished work. These worthies deserve our unstinting praise and are rightfully generously acknowledged in our works.) Many, many academic trees fall in the forest with no one to hear them.
This state of affairs holds for many other kinds of writers, of course. Online, even if we know someone is reading our writing we might not know whether they thought it was any good; we might note the number of hits on our blogs but remain unaware of whether our words resonated with any of our readers. The unfortunate converse is true; comments spaces tell us, loudly and rudely, just how poor our arguments are, how pointless our analysis, how ineffective our polemicizing. There is no shortage of critique, not at all.
It is a commonplace point to direct at academic writers that their work needs to be made relevant and accessible. Fair enough. I think though, that our tribe would greatly benefit from some positive reader feedback when these standards–besides the usual scholarly ones–are met. Academics often write to one another, indicating their interest in a common field of study, the value of their correspondent’s writing, and sometimes asking for copies of papers. To these existent epistolary relationships I suggest we add the merely appreciative note: I enjoyed your writing and here is why.
These notes are not mere acts of kindness, a dispensing of charity as it were. They encourage and sustain a useful species of human activity. They create an atmosphere, I think, conducive to scholarship and to further striving toward excellence. They make a writer want more of the same.
I know we’re all busy, but the next time you read something you like, see if you can send the writer a little thank-you note. You don’t have to do it all the time, but sometimes wouldn’t hurt.
Go ahead: reach out and touch someone.
Note: I was prompted to write this post by receiving an email from a doctoral student at Cambridge who had just read my A Legal Theory of Autonomous Artificial Agents and found it useful in his work on legal personality. The almost absurd pleasure I received on reading his email was a wistful reminder of just how much we crave this sort of contact.