Two months ago as the launch day counted down for An Effort to Understand, I worried that after well over a year of anticipation, publication would be a letdown—a fast burn, and a flameout. I also worried that the launch frenzy itself would be exhausting.
Absolutely the opposite. In almost all my conversations about the book on radio and podcasts and in book talks, the book has felt not like yesterday’s ideas that I’m being asked to rehash, but a convening trampoline for discussion with others about how each one of us—and thus, all of us—can better contend with one another (and with ourselves), in a really confusing time.
One friend, probably not alone in his sentiment, teases me regularly about how easily self-promotion seems to come to me, and asks me when the hullabaloo will die down.
Never, I hope!
First of all, I love hearing the different ways people find the book.
People I know:
A Black friend sends me a picture of my book on top of one by James Baldwin and tells me both are keeping him up late. A white conservative elder of the communication business is one of dozens of communicators who have taken it upon themselves to write independent reviews of the book, on their own sites. “This may be the best book on communication I’ve ever read,” he writes. My own sister tells me she’s listening to the audiobook, for the second time through. So does the speechwriter for the president of the University of Wisconsin. Friends and acquaintances sit me down to explain to me in person and at length how much they loved the book, and which parts they loved most. Some of them apologize to me for knowing it would be good but being surprised it is this good.
And people I don’t:
“I like this kind of book,” a random NetGalley reviewer writes. “It’s full of seemingly common-sense wisdom that isn’t so common. It’s full of lots of stories some of which provide lessons and some of which simply made me think or smile. This book is like reading a ‘Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten’ type book. A light easy read, perfect reading bit by bit out on the back porch or before heading to sleep. It just feels right, like your favorite blue jeans or an old pair of slippers.”
Some other comments, from Amazon and elsewhere:
If I could, I’d buy a copy of this book for every single person in America. It’s that essential.
As one whose passion and profession is talking about racism, I’m not often inclined to take advice about the rhetoric surrounding race. But this book did something few others have: it made me go “hmmm.”
David Murray takes everything I thought I knew about how to communicate and turns it inside out and upside down. This is funny, brilliant, full of great stories and insights and like nothing you’ve ever read before.
You can’t read the first page of Murray’s book without turning to the second. Then you’ll just barrel along, and by the time you take a breath on page 6, you’ll realize—if you haven’t already—that you’re in the hands of a great writer.
I found pearls, hope and humor in these pages.
David Murray’s essays are about to be required reading for the undergrads in my Political Speechwriting class—not just because David’s got a great way of turning a phrase, but because of his sense that listening is just as important as speaking. Young people need to learn that great communication can be powerful and life-changing, but it must also be kind and humble. David Murray is a great teacher of both.
Consider not only purchasing a copy for personal use, but also getting one for your most challenging communication partner.
It’s full of the kind of “push-you-to-your-limits” wisdom that we’ve eradicated from our lives with the self-selection of social media feeds and cable news. The kind that reverberates in your mind because the sound of it is so fresh and new.
There are books you read to escape. Books you read to learn. And books you read to evolve. Author David Murray delivers on each of these genres, leaving us laughing, contemplating, and cross-examining our deepest motivations and social media intent.
There is wisdom in these pages. The author succeeds in persuading his readers to look in the mirror and ask, in this most polarized of times, can’t I be better?
David Murray’s writing feels like he’s talking directly to you. It’s like the two of you are sitting at a neighborhood pub and you ask him what’s on his mind. … This book captures David’s best thinking. On every page, I found myself nodding my head in agreement with his sharp observations, audacious opinions, wonderful wit, and his bare-to-the-bone heart and soul expressed in words.
I expect that for months to come I’ll be reminded during conversations I have with friends, family and students of something I’ve learned from him that is worth sharing. Murray DOES understand something about this country.
I don’t know what I can possibly say to get you to read this book, but you should. If you are a writer, or a leader, or an HR professional, or a musician, or an activist, or an anarchist, or a human being, this book will suck you in with sincerity and, like a long talk with a great mentor, give you things to quietly chew on in your own time.
A must-read for all people.
Now, clearly some comments have been over the top—”David Murray is one of the great essayists of our time.” … “David Murray is a national treasure.” To keep those from going to my head, I just read the worst review, in a super-snotty accent: “This book was perfectly titled because it was ‘an effort to understand’ two hundred and twenty five pages of very boring opinions and insights.”
(My friend Joel Hood’s puppy wasn’t a fan, either. Or was he the biggest?)
But mostly what’s exciting is the kinds of conversations the book leads to—especially during book talks I’ve done with communication teams and other professional groups, with college classes and other student groups.
A single example comes to mind: During one book talk, a young Mexican woman—a DREAMer in waiting—told me she had married into a family that doesn’t approve of her very presence in this country. Does she have to make an effort to understand them? By the way she spoke, you could tell she loved her husband, and even that she seemed to love his family—or at least seemed deeply committed to winning their love and trust because she knew it was important to her marriage. She asked me how, in such a situation, do you make “an effort to understand”? I put the question back on her, because she sounded like more of on expert than me. “How do you do it?” I asked. She spoke for a few minutes about how she goes about talking to her in-laws and listening to them and showing them the kind of person she is—and how she also takes breaks from it when she gets too upset or too angry or too tired—and how she tries again. When she was finished, she had the look on her face that Studs Terkel once recalled an interviewee expressing: “I never knew I felt that way before.” I added a couple of lines from the book that underlined what she said, and I think everybody in the group was touched by the exchange—including the two of us.
Yes, I could have conversations like that every day.
I had a foreshadowing of this great feeling a couple years ago, after I gave a speech in the Dominican Republic, about the meaning of communication. During the Q&A, a young woman rose from the balcony to ask how you find an idea that you feel strongly enough about that you can actually stand and connect a hundred people to yourself and to each other.
“I don’t know,” I said, putting my hands on my knees in faux exhaustion. “I just know that it takes at least fifty years!”
And when you feel you’ve found it, you don’t want it to end.
To schedule a book talk with David Murray for groups of 10 or more, write to Benjamine Knight, at firstname.lastname@example.org.