A long paragraph this week, from a book of nonfiction to be published by Knopf on May 2nd.
Priests vow to remain celibate, physicians vow to do no harm, and letter carriers vow to swiftly complete their appointed rounds, despite snow, sleet, and split infinitives. Few people realize that psychologists also take a vow, promising that at some point in their professional lives they will publish a book, a chapter, or at least an article that contains this sentence: "The human being is the only animal that..." We are allowed to finish the sentence any way we like, of course, but it has to start with those eight words. Most of us wait until relatively late in our careers to fulfill this solemn obligation because we know that successive generations of psychologists will ignore all the other words that we managed to pack into a lifetime of well-intentioned scholarship and remember us mainly for how we finished The Sentence. We also know that the worse we do, the better we will be remembered. For instance, those psychologists who finished The Sentence with "can use language" were particularly well remembered when chimpanzees were taught to communicate with hand signs. And when researchers discovered that chimps in the wild use sticks to extract tasty termites from their mounds (and to bash one another over the head now and then), the world suddenly remembered the full name and mailing address of every psychologist who had ever finished The Sentence with "uses tools." So it is for good reason that most psychologists put off completing The Sentence for as long as they can, hoping that if they wait long enough, they just might die in time to avoid being publicly humiliated by a monkey.
I'd venture to guess people fall into three categories.
- People who'd think nothing of reading a book by a psychologist.
- Those who would never.
- The undecided middle ground, who'd maybe pick up a book by a psychologist upon the advice of a trusted source. (The same folks that don't read business books until a Freakonomics comes along.)
— and the people I almost forgot* —
- The ones that don't read.
Which is to say, maybe you wouldn't read this book if it were the last one on the shelf. But those first five words grab you, do they not? What do you think?
*I don't get out enough.
Update: See the author and title.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State