Monday, August 11, 2014

Search for the Elusive Thesis Statement

The general difference between children’s nonfiction and adult nonfiction is that children’s nonfiction is about instruction, and adult nonfiction is about persuasion. Children’s nonfiction is often centered on facts: if you go to your local library and check out a book on a U.S. president, for example, you should expect to find the simple facts of his biography, not an in-depth analysis of his administration. 

Of course there are facts-only books in the adult section, too. If you take out a “How to Repair Your Car” from the adult nonfiction section of the library, it’s not going to try to persuade you to repair your car.* The same would go for other How-To’s, crafts or cooking—although sometimes cookbooks try to persuade you to give up sugar or gluten or dairy.  But then there is another level of nonfiction that isn’t found nearly as often in the children’s section. It’s the kind of nonfiction book that one might be assigned in college, a book that I mentally have dubbed “thesis books,” because they’re basically long essays that, like all other essays, research papers, or well-written speeches, must include a thesis statement.

See, to write a book on something specialized, like linguistics, one should probably be a linguist. These kinds of specialists are often working in an academic setting like a college or university, and to get promoted or earn prestige they are expected—even required—to write articles and books about their specialized subject. From an essay-writing standpoint, a thesis statement is basically a topic sentence, stating what the essay’s goal is. And while some essays’ goals are simply to instruct or to say a certain topic is important, usually a thesis is really a confession to the reader of what the essay is going to try to convince them of. It’s the difference between instructional, “In this book I’m going to teach you to cook,” and persuasion, “I’m going to teach you to cook without meat because vegetarianism is healthier.”

Unfortunately some theses are harder to spot at the beginning of adult nonfiction. From my college days when we were graded on our ability to identify the thesis of every article or book we read, I can tell you the thesis is supposed to be in the first chapter or introduction, and it should be in the first paragraph or the first page. If the author is really ostensible they’ll probably word  it along the lines of “This book will show…” or “Such-and-such a topic is important for us to understand because…”, although generally this wording is avoided because it isn’t Subtle, and to writers nothing is so gauche as a lack of subtlety. 

Just remember that this “You can find the thesis in the first paragraph/page/chapter” is not always the case. I remember a rather lengthy discussion/argument/mutiny in a medieval history class when the professor insisted the class find the thesis of a book at the beginning, when the author had sloppily left their thesis until the last chapter. My classmates were not a little annoyed that they were consistently downgraded whole letter grades for leaving their thesis sentences until the second paragraph, when someone who was getting paid for it and obviously should have known better was flouting the rules right in front of them.

It’s easy to tell when a nonfiction book doesn’t have a clear thesis at the beginning. It’s this kind of book that prompts you to say repeatedly and hypothetically to the absent author: “What exactly is your point?!” When this happens, don’t throw out the book as having no point at all. Just think of it as having to do a little more detective work, to pay attention a little closer to what is written in order to find out what the author is trying to tell us. As I said above, sometimes authors think they can shake it up by delaying it until the end of the book, seemingly tacking it on in a sentence like “In conclusion…”, just like sometimes movies wait until the end credits to put up the title, like Pirates of the Caribbean. 

Which reminds me of the reason I started thinking about thesis books: reading a book that deals partly with piracy, The Outlaw Sea, a book that was riveting in its description of modern seafaring but also often left me wondering “What in the world are you driving at , William Langeweische?”

Unfortunately I’ve rambled on quite enough for one entry, so the actual review of this book will have to wait. 

*Though that does bring up the point that some people of the Tim the Tool-Man Taylor variety should probably be persuaded not to repair their car. Or anything else, for that matter. Such a person should probably read the books that persuade the reader to hire a professional.

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