A drawing of a book on a floodlight-lit stage, as though it's giving a thank you speech at an awards ceremony.

Why you should always read the acknowledgements in books

Do you tend to skip those pages of thank yous at the end of a book? Don't – you could be missing something amazing.

There's an episode of the American comedy Brooklyn 99 in which a group of characters play a game of Never Have I Ever. Their suggestions become ever more ludicrous, as they try and find something the very-strait-laced Detective Amy Santiago has done.

“Never have I ever left a movie without watching the credits,” suggests one character.

“Those people worked hard,” exclaims Amy, the thought clearly horrifying her. 

Horrified is how I feel about people who don’t “stay” for the literary equivalent of film credits: the acknowledgements. Where a dedication is often short and snappy, and noticed by nearly everyone as they flick past it to get to the book proper, the acknowledgments are the poor cousin standing at the edge of a dance in a Jane Austen novel. Those final pages of a book – a combination of an actor’s speech upon winning an Oscar and, if you’re a person of a certain age, the liner notes in a CD – are something I relish. 

Non-fiction books often come with “end matter”, the term given to all the things at the back of the books, from indexes to citations. By its very nature, that end matter is useful; readers may want to find a specific topic the book touches on, so use the index, or they may want to do further reading, so look at the citations or at the author’s note about their research. But novels often don’t contain these extras, and didn’t even include acknowledgements until relatively recently. 

In Book Parts, a collection of essays edited by Dennis Duncan and Adam Smyth about the anatomy of a book, Helen Smith writes that “early dedications frequently used the terms of ‘acknowledgement’, a tradition that endured through several centuries of print”.

“It was not until considerably later that acknowledgements established themselves as a separate genre,” writes Smith. She describes a 1960 guide to compiling a high school yearbook, which lays out rules for the inclusion of a thank you page (namely that the typography and layout compliment the rest of the book). Now, there’s a rare novel that comes without acknowledgements of some kind, and they’re often found in non-fiction books in addition to all the other end matter. 

“In fiction… the relegation of debts to the closing pages forms part of the post-Romantic tradition of celebrating solitary genius: who, in a work of imagination, wants the illusion of mastery punctured by the gritty textures of scholarly research?” writes Smith.

But I like having that illusion punctured, and finding out more about the author (both when it comes to fiction and non-fiction) – it appeals to my innate sense of curiosity, and that nosiness all human beings have. I love knowing how the author came to the book, who they spoke to and who in their lives made it easier for them to write. Even when acknowledgements are just a list of names, they’re fun reading. I love scouring the lines for the little literary tidbits I can glean; when authors thank other authors, I like thinking of them all in an author gang together, like a modern day Bloomsbury Set. 

'The acknowledgments are tantalising because they’re often the only true thing amid a pack of lies'

In the acknowledgements, you’re getting not just a glimpse of the writer, but also a glimpse of the person. Smith writes that “dedications and acknowledgements make the private public”, while in an essay for The Paris Review, author Anna North writes: “Acknowledgments...offer an all-too-rare view of the writer as actual human being. We often think we’re seeing the author’s real self when we read her fiction, but as any author who’s ever been asked what happened after she fled her family of international superspies and threw in her lot with a group of itinerant circus performers knows only too well, this is a delusion. The acknowledgments at the back of a novel are tantalising because they’re often the only true thing amid a pack of lies.”

North’s comment makes me think of acknowledgements which can completely change the book you’ve just read by revealing a truth you didn’t know.

In the thank yous for The Bastard of Istanbul, Elif Shafak writes about being put on trial for “denigrating Turkishness”, which happened between the Turkish and English versions of the book being published. “The charges that were brought against me were due to the words that some of the Armenian characters spoke in the novel; I could have been given up to a three-year prison sentence, but the charges were eventually dropped,” she writes. How, upon reading that, could you fail to be moved by the bravery of Shafak, and by the risk she took in writing The Bastard of Istanbul? I can’t imagine skipping the acknowledgements, and not having that particular bit of information to make me appreciate what I'd finished reading that bit more. 

'Thank you for always giving me a reason to be hopeful'

Of course, acknowledgements don’t always have to be revelatory to make an impact. A simple thank you that makes you laugh or cry (or both) can make you relate to an author, as with Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man: “A special thank you to my mother Suchitra Mukherjee for her faith and constant love, and to my father, who passed away last year, without whose nurture, love and guidance I would be nothing, and who taught me that looks, charm and wit are far more valuable than hard work.”

And a thank you that touches and inspires can also stay with you, such as the paragraph that ends Michelle Obama’s acknowledgements in Becoming: “Finally, I want to thank every young person I ever encountered during my time as First Lady. To all the promising young souls that touched my heart over those years - to those who helped my garden grow; to those who danced, sang, cooked and broke bread with me; to those who remained open to the love and guidance I had to give; to those who gave me thousands of warm, delicious hugs, hugs that lifted me up and kept me going even during my most difficult moments. Thank you for always giving me a reason to be hopeful.”

Hope, joy, laughter, sadness, knowledge - for those things and more it's my turn to end with an acknowledgment: authors, thank you for the thank yous.

Image: Alicia Fernandes/Penguin

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