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Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Last Chapter Problem

Ever since the topic was broached in a Times Book Review article by David Greenberg a couple of weeks ago, there has been a lot of buzz about the Last Chapter Problem--the apparent need for every serious nonfiction book to end with a chapter that offers solutions to the problems described.

Why is this a problem? Because the proposed solutions are usually hopelessly inadequate to the problem.  After all, as blogger Kevin Drum wrote, "[A]ny social or political problem that’s hard enough to be interesting is also hard enough to have no obvious solutions."  What's more, the typical writer is better at describing situations than improving them--otherwise he or she would be a political leader or social reformer rather than a writer.

It's not easy to know what to do about the Last Chapter Problem.  Simply omitting the last chapter is usually not the answer, since editors and publishers generally insist on offering the reader a bit of hope rather than concluding with the implicit message that the problem portrayed in the book--global warming, endemic poverty, child abuse, or whatever--is basically insoluble.  And they are probably right to do so; it's hard to imagine many readers enthusiastically urging friends to read a book that is fundamentally a downer.

Perhaps the only real answer--one that only applies in a few happy cases--is when it's possible to describe the problem with such clarity and insight that, even before arriving at the obligatory Last Chapter, the nature of the solutions has been strongly implied throughout.  For me, that was the case with Lewis Hyde's wonderful new book Common As Air, which deals with the growing tension between corporate control of intellectual property and the freedom and openness needed to encourage and facilitate further creativity.

Although Hyde does indeed write a traditional Last Chapter, I found that his vivid stories about how creativity really works--including, for example, his account of how Benjamin Franklin relied on inspiration, advice, and information from fellow scientists around the world in devising his famous kite experiment and the theory of electricity that grew from it--made Hyde's preferred approach to creating an "intellectual commons" for all to share and protect was abundantly clear even before I read it.  In fact, Hyde's detailed arguments and supporting narratives were so compelling that by the time I came to his policy recommendations in the Final Chapter, I just nodded my head and said, "Of course, of course."

If you're smart and creative enough to pull this off, this seems to me to be the ideal solution to the Last Chapter Problem.  But that's a big if!


  1. Dear Karl Weber,

    Would you solution be to drop the last chapter? I ask because another critique of the book is that I don't offer prospective suggestions for reform, I simply tell the reader things that are already being done. Some readers seem to want more; others (you?) would settle for less.

    Cheers, -- Lewis Hyde

  2. No, I would hate to see the last chapter disappear from COMMON AS AIR, because in it you bring the rather abstract and historical argument in the previous chapters back to the concrete and the contemporary, and we as readers find that our understanding of the examples you discuss, from the free software movement to the various cases of "aphasia" induced by copyright abuse, has been profoundly changed and deepened by the broader context provided in those earlier chapters.

    It's a skillful solution to the Last Chapter Problem, though one, as I suggested, not available to every author or suitable for every book.

    BTW it is a thrill to hear from you. THE GIFT has burrowed its way into my consciousness and germinated there for many years now. It's one of the ten books that have most influenced my thinking, for which I'm very grateful. Thanks and best wishes--K.W.