By Juliana Adelman
A friend of mine has just finished the manuscript to her first book. Last week, as deadline panic set in and she tried to decide how much further revision was both necessary and feasible, she made an observation that struck me: historians pay more attention to introductions than conclusions. She was worried about her conclusion but felt she had less advice and experience to fall back on as to how to shape it. I tried to think of a history book with a strikingly good conclusion. A brief recourse to my bookshelf seemed to prove my friend’s point: many of the books didn’t have a conclusion at all. Several of them were fewer than five pages in length. Does the type of introduction historians prefer obviate a conclusion? Or do we go in like a lion and then, by acknowledging alternative interpretations, out like a lamb? Is narrative so passé that conclusions are rendered impossible?
I tend to think that an introduction and a conclusion do two different things. The introduction tries to catch the reader’s attention, it says ‘You should read this book and if you do you will discover…’. The conclusion doesn’t just say ‘Since you read this book you now know…’. A good conclusion gives you something more than a summary. But what? Two undergraduate writing websites, from Dartmouth College and University of North Carolina, offered useful if not fully satisfying answers.
When I was editing my PhD-turned-book the editor suggested to me that my conclusion needed substantial work. It should, he told me, neither summarize the chapters nor present new material not discussed in the chapters. It should match the introduction but not repeat it. It should look beyond the book but not make unsubstantiated claims. So what on earth should it do? I’m not sure that I achieved anything that I could recommend emulating, but I spent hours and hours trying.
My friend’s dilemma has set me thinking about conclusions all over again and I began to wonder if perhaps it would be more instructive to think of satisfying conclusions to novels. Not everyone will agree with me, but I like to finish a novel feeling pleased with myself that I read it. That sounds ridiculous, let me try to explain. I feel disappointed if everything is tied up in a neat little package that I could have predicted from the start. This does not just apply to mystery novels (although I do like those). My only disappointment with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (David Mitchell) was that it ended rather abruptly and rather neatly. I don’t want to feel like the story is actually over, that it only exists between the two covers. I want to feel that I have been allowed a glimpse of some much larger story that continues after I close the book and that I can keep thinking about without already knowing how it ends. The postmodern in me scorns a ‘happy-ever-after’. A conclusion which summarizes is effectively a ‘happy-ever-after’. It does not challenge the reader to think beyond the book in front of them. I doubt that I have ever concluded a piece of writing in a way that satisfies these suggestions.
So, any nominations for the best history book conclusions?