Because I give quite a number of talks throughout the year, participate in book signings, and participate in many chats/discussions of topics that pertain to my books (directly or indirectly), I'm often reminded of exactly why I do this work. When folks tell me how much they enjoy one book or another, or one of my articles - or even give me deserved criticism about something I may have completely screwed up - it reinforces my motivation to help folks learn and discover. And in the process I learn even more.
There is the danger, though, to become a bit jaded. The more you hear praise and criticism, the danger increases that it doesn't make as much impact as time goes on. In addition to being guilty of it myself, I've seen it happen to many other authors/students of many genres. The more you hear how "great" you or your work is, the less it can impress you. I must always remind myself that for each new person that makes a comment to me, it's "new" to them that they've had a chance to praise or criticize. It's probably good that every once in a while someone shows indifference to my work, or outright tells me that I'm the worst historian to walk the planet :)
I must admit, though, that certain reactions and uses of my work make a great deal of impact. Today, my friend Jim Beeghley, adjunct professor of Graduate Education at Waynesburg (Pa) University, sent me a link to his blog post showing videos of his young son, CJ, at Gettysburg this past weekend. CJ is searching for rock carvings on the battlefield, using The Complete Gettysburg Guide as his guide. In each video, CJ is actually reading about each carving directly from the book as he sits or stands next to each one.
Here is the link to the post of videos on Jim's blog.
Barely 10 seconds into the first video, I don't mind admitting that my eyes began to moisten as I watched young CJ read my words. I chuckled as I watched him struggle with some words unfamiliar to him (sorry, CJ!), but he dutifully and determinedly said them phoenetically. Good on ya, CJ - you did very well.
But as he read from the book, and Jim panned the camera to the carvings, a few times I closed my eyes and listened to CJ - recalling when I wrote those words. His young voice, sometimes struggling with pronunciation but always doing his best, was the sweetest music I've heard in a long time. It made me think that perhaps someday long into the future, when I'm long gone and forgotten about, another youngster will find my dusty, musty old book on a shelf or in a box somewhere, and it might motivate him to read and learn. And perhaps visit the battlefield with the book. Things that we leave to this world - whether written words, things we say or do to another, or just the prodigy of a family line - last much longer than our own lives.
While out there on the field using my book, and as son and father so graciously made a video of the experience, I'm sure neither one suspected the impact it would have on me. That's as it should be. The experience, of course, wasn't for me. It was for them, to discover and learn, to be son and father together on such hallowed ground of historical importance. And it was also much more for the ones who made those carvings - Park Noel, Augustus Coble, etc. - because their stories live on in those who tell them. As I hope my work makes a difference into the future, probably folks like Noel, Coble, and the others could never have dreamed that 100 years and more into the future, people would be talking about them like they do now. However much of an instrument I've been for that attention, I'm grateful. And I know that Steve Stanley is too.
Thank you, Jim and CJ. Historian David McCollough, with his wonderful voice and presence, could have been out on that field reading from my book... and it wouldn't have made nearly the impact that you did.
With appreciation from a grateful heart.