As Thomas Cahill tells it, the heavens did not part, hosts of angels did not sing. "It was 1990, and I was attending my first sales conference as director of religious publishing at Doubleday," he says. "I had just met Nan Talese, and I was trying to make small talk, so I mentioned this idea I had for a series of historical books." Five major publishers had already turned down the series, but Talese, who runs her own imprint, asked to see the proposal. "She signed the first book right away," Cahill remarks matter-of-factly. And the rest of the story, as they say, is history.
Irish history, to be exact. In 1995, Talese published How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, the first volume of the series. The phenomenal success of the book, which has an audience well beyond the obvious Celtophiles -- "I know this because I receive the fan letters," Cahill explains -- lies in Cahill's ability to interpret and present a great amount of information and complex ideas in a manner that is both easily accessible and entertaining. In straightforward yet lyrical prose filled with humor, Cahill presents ancient characters -- many of whom are not well-known -- with motivations that we can recognize; readers have responded by making his book a bestseller.
Cahill hopes to replicate this success with the publication of The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, the second entry in his Hinges of History series. The mission of the series, he says, is "to view history from the moments of great gifts -- to look at the things we want to hold on to and why. We should know where we came from; that's how we know who we are right now."
The Gifts of the Jews is an ambitious endeavor, much more so than what Cahill calls his "Irish book," which told the story, little-known outside of Ireland, of the fifth-century Irish monks who copied -- and, thereby, preserved -- almost all of what has survived of Western classical poetry, history, oratory, philosophy and commentary. "I decided not to hurl my most profound book at the audience first. After all, everyone thinks he knows something about the fall of Rome," Cahill says, chatting with PW in a vacant 18th-floor office in the Bertelsmann building overlooking Times Square. "I decided to get them to trust me before I took them deep-sea fishing." For the author, a scholar and Roman Catholic, the "deep sea" in question is actually the Old Testament. His new book compares the ancient Israelites to their predecessors, the Sumerians, who believed that all existence is cyclical and that one's fate is written in the stars.
"I did not want to write an introduction to the Bible," Cahill says. "I'm trying to take the culture of the Word and show that it's so intrinsic to Western values that we can't get away from it, that it has completely formed the values of contemporary life." In order for Cahill to help contemporary readers understand the source of Western experience, he explores the emotional life of biblical figures such as Abraham, Moses and King David, and illuminates their increasingly personal relationship to one God, transforming dusty mythical legends into real historical characters, some of whom, in the course of my research, I come to know better than I know my friends."
Ask Cahill if he is surprised by the success of his approach -- today, there are almost 700,000 hardcover and paperback copies of his Irish book in print, with reorders coming in at 5000 copies a week -- and the answer is an emphatic "No." Although it reached the public consciousness at the same time as Frank McCourt's memoir, Angela's Ashes (a coincidence, says Cahill, that meant booksellers often lumped both books together on the "St. Patrick's Day table"), Cahill believes both books were enormously popular "because they're real books that explore the human experience."
Cahill has a friendly, honest face, a ready laugh and hands that gesture expressively when he speaks. In muted wool pants, tweed blazer and maroon shirt, he looks the part of a former professor. Earnest about every aspect of his work, Cahill invites PW to join members of a prayer group he leads when they read later in the week to HIV-positive children at a residence in upper Manhattan.
Two days later, at the Incarnation Children's Center, Cahill sits by the bed of a 10-year-old boy, working his way through a stack of well-worn children's books. The child is, at turns, contrary and attentive. Cahill, for his part, is patient and somewhat fatherly as he reads quietly, stopping only to gently persuade the child to share a book with a smaller boy who wants to borrow it. For both, the simple act of reading together is immensely important. "These children love to be read to, as all children do," Cahill says, explaining that the one-on-one sessions grew out of a desire to give something to those less fortunate.
But ask Cahill to discuss his own "more or less" religious childhood in the Bronx, and he suddenly shuts down. "I don't think there is anything I can explain in a few sentences," he says, admitting that he is under contract with Talese to write a memoir about his childhood, titled What Was Love Made For? "Of course, there are always things that are painful. And, in writing a memoir, I think you should always try to understand what happened to you. I just haven't hammered it out yet."
Born in New York City to first-generation Irish American parents and raised in the Bronx, he was educated by Jesuits and attended Regis High School in Manhattan on a scholarship. It was there, when he was 14, that he "had the great fortune" to be introduced to the Greek and Latin of Plato and Augustine. "In some ways," he explains, "I've been preparing for this series of books all my life."
Gifts of the Classics
Cahill has been a lifelong scholar. He continued studying Greek and Latin literature, as well as medieval philosophy, at Fordham University, where he completed both a B.A. in classical literature and philosophy and a pontifical degree in philosophy. He went on to complete his M.F.A. in film and dramatic literature at Columbia University. As preparation for his books, and "for personal knowledge," he has studied scripture at Fordham, Union Theological Seminary and the Jewish Theological Seminary. In addition, he has taught at both Queens College and Seton Hall University; served as the North American education correspondent for the Times of London; spent several years as the advertising director of the New York Review of Books; and was, for many years, a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review. In 1976, he and his wife, Susan, an author and anthropologist, founded Cahill &Company, whose principal product was the Reader's Catalogue, a mail-order book catalogue that became a staple in literate households over the next decade. The Cahills have since sold the catalogue.
In 1971, the couple obtained a $1500 advance from Scribner to write A Literary Guide to Ireland, and spent a year in Ireland doing research. While exploring medieval Irish literature, Cahill first discovered what he calls Ireland's "one moment of unblemished history" and made up his mind to someday write about it. More surprisingly, the idea for Cahill's "Jewish book" also derived from that year in Ireland. After witnessing a number of fertility festivals in the Irish countryside based on ancient pagan rituals, Cahill began to think about the Bible in a new way. "I remember realizing that the definitive change in human thinking came with those biblical materials," he says. He could not shake the force of that revelation, and it became the filter through which he viewed all of his experience. "This insight became a new way of interpreting the reality of culture," he explains.
Cahill's background made him a perfect candidate for director of religious publishing at Doubleday, and, in six years on the job, he thrived under a broad mandate to acquire and publish philosophical and scriptural studies titles as well as religious titles. In one innovative experiment, he successfully published the Catechism of the Catholic Church in mass market paperback (Doubleday, 1995). But his proudest accomplishment as publisher, he says, is the six-volume Anchor Bible Dictionary, which has become a fixture in the libraries of biblical scholars all over the world. "I could not have written The Gifts of the Jews without it," he says.
While he was at Doubleday, Cahill closely watched the warm reception of "accessibly written books of history, even about subjects people didn't know they wanted to read about," such as Barbara Tuchman's chronicle of 14th-century Europe, A Distant Mirror. The popularity of such books, Cahill says, instilled in him the idea that "if a writer can give them insight into the past, then the readers will go there."
Ultimately, Cahill credits Talese with being one of the few publishers discerning enough about the market to understand the potential of the Hinges of History series. "The backbone of publishing ought to be the customer who buys 25 hardcover books a year, because that person is an addict," he explains, adding that Talese understands this concept. "Nan has very broad interests, and she responds personally to books," he says. "She doesn't try to make herself into the whole country. She just believes that if she likes the book, others will as well." Talese signed his first book immediately; his agent, Lynn Nesbit, negotiated the contract for the rest of the series.
Cahill wrote the entire Irish book in his "spare time" in the evenings and on weekends while still on staff at Doubleday. Its success granted him the fervent wish of writers everywhere: to retire from his job and write full-time. "Losing him as a publisher meant I got 100% of him as a writer, which is exactly what I wanted," Talese says.
"Writing the first book while working as a publisher was not a nice way to live," Cahill adds. "I nearly drove my family insane," he says of his wife, daughter and son, each of whom will receive a book dedication "in order of birth." He writes full-time these days, following a schedule -- one book every two years for the next decade -- that would put all but the most prolific authors to shame. And his hard work has paid off with a few perks, including a new apartment in Rome bought with the royalties from his Irish book. He now splits his time between that home and his house in Riverdale, a suburban section of the north Bronx. Most days, he's at his desk in his home-office, following a long walk and breakfast, by 8:30 a.m., and works until 1 p.m. After a long break, he looks at his work again. "I can sustain this pace because I've been writing these books in my mind for years," he explains, declining even to hint at the topics of future titles in the series because "the surprise is what's fun."
To become intimate with the subjects of the books, Cahill has taken field trips to the ruins of medieval castles in Ireland, the homes of learned men in Jerusalem and the tents of nomadic Bedouin in the Sinai desert. "I try to see the places I am writing about, but most of my travel is to libraries," he says. "There's no substitute for picking up a book and looking at it." And most of these books he reads in the original languages. He devoted one recent summer to learning Hebrew ("I was humbled by the knowledge that my mind is not the sponge it was when I was 17"). He regularly uses his Latin, Ancient Greek, French and Italian, and he even reads a little German and Gaelic. "Even late at night, I can find my way to the men's room in a pub in the West of Ireland," he jokes.
For Cahill, language is the key to history. "When people address me as a historian, I always look around to see if it's really me they're talking to," he says, laughing. "I guess I think of myself more as a translator of poetry than a historian. Often, because the language is difficult, events are sealed in envelopes and not examined. Revealing these events is like peeling an onion, one layer after another after another. And that's my job: to peel the onion, to ask how we can put history into something we understand without destroying it."