The best books about why people write books

Benjamin Hoffmann Author Of The Paradoxes of Posterity
By Benjamin Hoffmann

Who am I?

I grew up in Bordeaux, a city that became prominent during the eighteenth century. My hometown inspired my love of eighteenth-century French studies, which led me to the Sorbonne, then to Yale University where I earned a PhD. Today, I am an Associate Professor at The Ohio State University. I am the author of eight novels and monographs published in France and the US, including American Pandemonium, Posthumous America, and Sentinel Island. My work explores numerous genres to question a number of recurring themes: exile and the representation of otherness; nostalgia and the experience of bereavement; the social impact of new technologies; America’s history and its troubled present.

I wrote...

The Paradoxes of Posterity

By Benjamin Hoffmann, Alan J. Singerman (translator),

Book cover of The Paradoxes of Posterity

What is my book about?

Why do people write? It has everything to do with being remembered by posterity. The Paradoxes of Posterity argue that the impetus for literary creation comes from a desire to transcend the mortality of the human condition through a work addressed to future generations. Refusing to turn their hope towards the spiritual immortality promised by religious systems, authors seek a symbolic form of perpetuity granted to the intellectual side of their person in the memory of those not yet born while they write. 

Benjamin Hoffmann illuminates the paradoxes inherent in the search for symbolic immortality: paradoxes of belief, identity, and mediation. Theoretically sophisticated and convincingly argued, this book contends that there is only one truly serious literary problem: the transmission of texts to posterity. 

The books I picked & why

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The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life

By Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski

Book cover of The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life

Why this book?

I remember reading a review of The Worm at the Core and buying it the same day. With wide-ranging and eye-opening evidence, this fascinating book demonstrates how the fear of death guides our thoughts and actions. Whereas psychological studies can be at times focused on rather narrow problem areas, The Worm at the Core presents an ambitious theory about the hidden motivations of our decisions and how they surreptitiously relate to the fear of death. It also shows that the ways people try to live meaningful lives are as diverse as people themselves: while some focus on their children who will carry their genes to the next generation, others are determined to leave a legacy that will outlive them. We all hope to be worth more than our own death; The Worm at the Core highlights the many-faceted ways we attempt to do so. 

Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame

By H.J. Jackson,

Book cover of Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame

Why this book?

Those Who Write for Immortality is, simply put, a remarkable book. It’s an in-depth study of British writers whose work was written with the goal of surviving what Horace called “the teeth of time.” It confronts the literary careers of authors who managed to be remembered after their deaths to the failed attempts of gifted, but ultimately unsuccessful rivals. This study illuminates both the romantic period and the quest for literary fame in our own time. A must-read for anyone interested in Austen, Keats, Blake, and Lord Biron, it is also indispensable for readers willing to explore the theoretical issues associated with the goal of writing for those who are yet to be born, people whose values and aesthetic preferences might very well become completely different from our own.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

By Stephen Greenblatt,

Book cover of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Why this book?

While The Swerve is not exactly a book about posterity, it nonetheless provides a wonderful case study of a text that remained on the verge of destruction for centuries, before going on to play a tremendously influential role in shaping our modern world. This book is none other than On The Nature of Things by Lucretius –one of the foundational texts of Western culture, whose impact was postponed to the fifteenth century, as it would not have seen the light of day without its serendipitous rediscovery in a German monastery by Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459). This gripping work offers a fascinating example of the delayed reception of a prominent cultural object, a proof of its extraordinary resilience, and, at the same time, an illustration of the role played by chance and accidents on the transmission of texts to posterity. 

The Invention of Celebrity

By Antoine Lilti, Lynn Jeffress (translator),

Book cover of The Invention of Celebrity

Why this book?

Antoine Lilti’s ground-breaking study about celebrity demonstrates that a phenomenon we generally associate with modern culture and cinema has much older roots: roots that go back to eighteenth-century Europe. Thanks to the rise of the press and the development of new advertising techniques, such figures as Voltaire, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Marie-Antoinette, or Napoléon saw their private lives on public display and learned to navigate the privileges and pitfalls of a new form of social prestige. Elegantly written and accessible to non-specialists, this book is particularly useful to differentiate between forms of public recognition that are connected but ultimately distinct, such as glory, reputation, celebrity, and posterity. The work of a major historian of eighteenth-century France, The Invention of Celebrity explains why the age of Enlightenment was a laboratory in which our modern sense of self was invented, while also uncovering the origins of our longing for public recognition—both now and after our death. 

Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

By Andrew S. Curran,

Book cover of Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

Why this book?

In this lively, elegant biography, Andrew Curran retraces the intellectual itinerary of a major eighteenth-century philosopher, Denis Diderot. Very few people ever lived and wrote with as much confidence in the power of posterity to recognize their greatness and the importance of their intellectual contribution after their death. Diderot, indeed, had to hide a significant proportion of his writings because they were just too controversial and ahead of their time. He believed that nothing was more inspirational than to work for the admiration of those who have yet to be born. Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely is a marvelous introduction to the Enlightenment through the portrait of one of its major thinkers, and a great way to understand why people write books for those they will never meet.

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