Sheryl Sandberg's book acknowledgements, of course, run for seven-and-a-half pages, thanking 140+ people. (Mandatory disclaimer: I have not read the book. Also, I never will.) But that is really pretty outrageous, and it is true that book acknowledgements, whether for fiction or nonfiction, have gone absolutely bonkers. Lorin Stein's got a pretty great historical take—"You don't see Joseph Conrad thanking Ford Madox Ford"—but when did this really begin? Well!
I have noted three characteristics in the history of acknowledgements over the last century that I am taking into account as I contemplate writing them again. The first several generations of professional scholars never thanked anybody personally for helping them, even though they had lots of friends — even wives! — who read their work and critiqued it. A book might have a dedication, but that was it, and it was usually to a mentor, a parent or a spouse. Historians, at least, seemed to consider acts of friendship or colleagueship to be mostly private business. After 1945, this changed: a historian might make an acknowledgement to a reader or two, perhaps a colleague or a dissertation director and to sources of funding for research and sabbatical. But the most personal acknowledgement was either “to my wife” or “to Mrs. Harriet Bazooka, our departmental secretary” who “typed the manuscript.” After the 1960′s, however, acknowledgements became more elaborate but were still prim: sources of funding, colleagues, typists, research assistants — and then by the 1980′s, the acknowledgements section increasingly became a telephone book of family members, one’s graduate student cohort, members of an undergraduate seminar taught in the spring of 2000 who wrote helpful bibliographical essays or who just talked a lot, every person who laid eyes on any piece of the manuscript, ever, from proposal stage to indexing, and everyone who cooked or cleaned for the author.
And here we are, with SEVEN AND A HALF PAGES of hot and cold running nonsense.