On Introductions and Writing Books About People

During my last year of graduate school (I was doing a PhD in History) I started reading The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, by David Hoffman.

The Dead Hand, by David Hoffman, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

The Dead Hand, by David Hoffman, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

At the time, I was struggling with the Introduction to my dissertation: How to even start an Introduction? How do you write one without sounding dull or pretentious or repetitive? How can you be clear and concise, but also manage to demonstrate everything you’ve ever learned on a topic? How do you introduce a book so that your readers keep reading?

I took a break from writing one day. I was working from home and sat down in my living room—in my favorite chair by the window—with a cup of coffee. My mom had recommended Hoffman’s book to me and I had been meaning to read it for a while. As I sat there, completely uninspired, I decided to start the book. At the very least, I hoped, reading a Pulitzer Prize winning history would help me find inspiration for my own history.

So I reached for the book. In the end, I got only as far as the first sentence of the Introduction. That was all I needed to be struck with inspiration. I read it again and again:

“This book is the story of people [Hoffman wrote]—presidents, scientists, engineers, diplomats, soldiers, spies, scholars, politicians and others—who sought to brake the speeding locomotive of the arms race.”

Struggling with my own Introduction that day—trying to figure out how to tell my readers what my own dissertation was about—I was struck by how Hoffman had said it so simply: “This is the story of people.” A particular subgroup of people, to be sure, people who had done certain things in a certain time, but the simplicity of it was what appealed to me. It is a book about people.

I put the book down and considered my own project. It, too, was a story about people. I decided to give Hoffman’s sentence a try for myself. My story about people was not about presidents, engineers, diplomats, soldiers, spies, or politicians, but it was about scientists and researchers. It was also about lawyers, executives, patients, and victims.

I thought about every person I mentioned in my project, and their role in the story I was trying to tell. I had barely scratched the surface, I realized. It wasn’t a story about people—scientists, researchers, lawyers, patients, victims, or any others. It was a story that had people, but I had not made it about people.

I didn’t have time to rewrite the dissertation, but I did try to draw out my characters as much as possible before I had to submit to my committee. It was a sentence I would not forget though, and when I started the long process of re-imagining my dissertation as a book, the first thing I knew was that it would be a book about people.