When Is a Blurb More than a Blurb? (On Blurbs, Blurbing, and David Lawther Johnson’s Learning from My Father)

Nearly a year ago, Rachel Bomberger, then serving as copywriter and official blurb-getter for Eerdmans, penned a review of Wesley Granberg-Michaelson’s Unexpected Destinations in which she mused upon the meaning and worth of cover endorsements (commonly known as “blurbs”) for publishing.

“A back-cover blurb can say and mean many things,” Rachel wrote.

Sometimes it says, “This book is written by a promising young scholar in my field, and I want to give him all the support and encouragement I can.” Sometimes it says, “This book is written by a legend in my field, and — oh my gosh — I’m thrilled and honored to get my name on the cover of her book.” Sometimes it means the book is wildly provocative; sometimes it means the book is comfortably orthodox. Sometimes it simply means what it says: “Wow. This is a great book.”

Within the publishing industry, there is regular debate over the value and efficacy of blurbs —whether they really tell consumers anything of value about a book or do anything at all to help sell it. Yet I think endorsements can and do say something important about how good and how significant a book is. Yes, there are times when blurbs are nothing more than token gestures — products of a complicated system of institutionalized back scratching among professionals. More often than not, though, people do not “blurb” a book unless they really like it.

Just last week, the debate continued as The New York Times invited four people close to the publishing industry — Stephen King, Sophfronia Scott, Bill Morris, and Sharon Bowers — to share their opinions on the value of book blurbs. Bill Morris’s response to the Times’s “Quandary of the Book Blurb” is especially insightful; he observes: “One thing everyone seemed to agree on was that blurbs will always be with us even though no one knows for sure if they help sell books. In that sense, they’re a bit like the vermouth in a martini: can’t do any harm, might do some good, so let’s have it.”

Perhaps whether or not blurbs are of any substantial value ultimately comes down to who’s doing the blurbing and what they have to say about a given book.

If a relatively unknown professor at a relatively unknown university writes in to say that a certain book “makes a significant contribution,” it is — perhaps — a slightly different matter than if, say, a popular NPR host (like Krista Tippett), a sitting state governor (like Mitch Daniels), and a New York Times bestselling author (like Walter Isaacson) all write to tell us that one of our books is “beautiful,” “inspiring,” and “deeply moving.”

Learning from My Father
Learning from My Father

We must assume, then, that in the case of David Lawther Johnson’s soon-to-be-released Learning from My Father: Lessons on Life and Faith, the spectacular blurbs we’ve received (from some truly spectacular sources) indeed say something very valuable about the book.

Read them all and judge for yourself:

“This beautiful book provides a way to look at the most important questions in life. It is a guide to understanding faith and love, meaning and belief. David Johnson does it by recalling the letters and lessons learned from his father. It is an inspiring work.”
— Walter Isaacson
Author of Steve Jobs

“In a nation with tragically too few fathers, David Johnson had a great one, whose wisdom and grace he now generously shares with us. There is a saying, ‘When an old person dies, a library closes.’  This book opens a rich library in which the reader will want to browse often.”
— Mitch Daniels
Governor, State of Indiana

“Learning from my Father is, quite simply, a beautiful book — eloquent, deeply moving, quietly passionate, and wise. At a moment when we seem eager to divide ourselves between an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ Johnson speaks across the lines of ideology and faith traditions to a human and humane ‘we.’ Marrying his father’s lessons to his own reflections, he reminds us that Christianity is not about ideological conflict or cultural mistrust. It calls us to attentiveness, responsibility, joy, and love. In offering this gift to his father, Johnson has gifted all of us.”
— E. J. Dionne Jr.
Author of Our Divided Political Heart

“You don’t look for an authority in a person who is, as John Milton says, ‘deeply vers’d in books, and shallow in himself,’” David Lawther Johnson’s father once wrote to him. “It must be someone whose own life shows that he knows what life is all about.” Learning from My Father is a testament to such a life and a voice for our time.  One generation’s wisdom meets another’s and yields an arresting and moving reflection on the meaning of Christian commitment. This book models a faith at once devout and questioning, full-blooded and elegant. It is at once an affirmation of tradition and a call to trust the vitality of the tradition to meet all the complexity of unfolding life in this world.”
— Krista Tippett
“On Being,” American Public Media (http://onbeing.org)

“In writing this marvelous tribute to his father, David Johnson has also given us a gift. This little book imparts much wisdom and inspiration!”
— Richard J. Mouw
President, Fuller Theological Seminary

“In this beautifully written memoir David Lawther Johnson reveals not only profound lessons he learned from his father but also deep wisdom for all of us about living courageous and faithful lives. To read this book is to reflect about what truly matters in our closest relationships and in the ways we number our days.”
— Thomas G. Long
Emory University

“Parent and child interacting profoundly in life and death. A familial faith journey captured in precious letters back and forth. A son’s loving book is a truly stimulating intellectual treat. Questions of faith become doorways to grace as told in this marvelous exchange between parent and child. Grace passed from one generation to the next may, in fact, be the greatest gift.”
— Daniel F. Evans
President and CEO, Indiana University Health

“When David Johnson, now a prominent business and public leader, went off to Harvard University in 1971, he entered a turbulent intellectual, cultural and religious environment that raised urgent faith-life questions in the mind of this bright, young son of a Presbyterian minister.  A lengthy, moving and wise theological correspondence between father and son ensued, and this rare and wonderful book renders the story beautifully. Glimpses into their lives and relationship as well as excerpts from the letters they wrote to one another are interwoven with Johnson’s current mature reflections on the profound theological questions he continues to ask. Through it all, Johnson invites all of us to think deeply about what it means to live the Christian life today. Read it alone and be enriched. Read it with others and let it deepen your conversations. Read it with your young adult daughters and sons and begin a correspondence of your own. This is a very special book by an unusually thoughtful Christian lay person and a dear friend.”
— Craig Dykstra
Senior Vice President, Religion, Lilly Endowment Inc.

“In Learning From My Father David Johnson shares with all of us a unique gift he received from his own father. His eight lessons touch on challenges all believers face, and his compelling dialog with his father, along with his own life story, shine a bright light on what it means to be Christian and how we as Christians must understand our calling.”
— John C. Lechleiter
Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer, Eli Lilly and Company

Click here to order David Lawther Johnson’s Learning from My Father: Lessons on Life and Faith.