This question is asked of every book. What's it about? A simple straightforward question, yet the answer isn't always so simple and straightforward for books that lean toward the creative side of the nonfiction spectrum. I asked this question myself just a couple days ago about a book soon to be released (Roots & Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons by Christie Purifoy) and felt a twinge of inner tension as I did. I knew I was asking an unanswerable question, because the answer would never predict the experience of reading it.
Consider the 25-word pitch: a book's elevator speech, something every writer is supposed to be able to say about their book. Once I went to a week-long writers conference where at each meal you sat around a table with 8 or so other writers and one editor or publisher, and while you ate you each took a turn giving your book's pitch. Swallow your scrambled eggs and take a sip of coffee then pitch it hard and fast.
This question of what a book is about and the assumption that it should be easily summed up in a single breath's worth of words reminds me of Billy Collin's poem "Introduction to Poetry." Read the whole thing here at the Poetry Foundation's website, but this excerpt says enough to make the point. Imagine a teacher standing in front of a class, asking his students what they think about a poem open at their desks.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
How would Annie Dillard have pitched the classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in 25 words or less? What would she have said it was about? Or consider a more recent example, Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby. Maybe she had to give a short and sweet pitch like this to an editor before moving this multi-layered book forward, but I can't think of what it would have been. If asked I'm not sure I could tell you in any succinct fashion what it was about, yet I know what I thought about while I read it and what I thought about for a long time after: stories, particularly stories whose endings we can't know or never seem to come; sorrow; healing; love and friendship; gifts and giving.
Good books can be about so much more than what they're about.
[Photo: taken of a mosaic on the grounds of a historic cemetery here in Minneapolis, Lakewood. You can read more about the art and mosaics at Lakewood here. I don't know the story behind this one in the picture.]