Inside USD

USD History Professor, Author Takes the Spotlight in Brazil

Monday, August 11, 2008

In some cases, time does make things better. Ken Serbin, Ph.D, a history professor at the University of San Diego, took 20 years to write what should have been his first book, and he says it’s much better because of that.

Serbin is currently on a book tour in Brazil to promote his book “Needs of the Heart: A Social and Cultural History of Brazil’s Clergy and Seminaries.” The book was originally published in the United States two years ago, but was recently translated in Portuguese. The book has been highly accepted in Brazil, as was his first book “Secret Dialogues: Church-State Relations, Torture and Social Justice in Authoritarian Brazil.”

Serbin has received massive media attention since “Needs of the Heart:” was released in Brazil, the world’s largest Catholic country and one of the world’s largest markets for books. He’s seen as a famous author who has been featured in Brazilian newspapers, and is booked for radio and television interviews during his tour.

He said his books are considered more academic reading in the United States, and both have been used in university classrooms. However, they aren’t your typical books found on the shelves of Barnes & Nobles or Borders. In Brazil, it’s a different story. The Portuguese version was published by a top book publisher and is available for the general public in major bookstores.

“(It’s popular) because it’s about Brazil, and Brazilians like to read about their own culture, especially when a foreigner writes about their culture,” Serbin said. “They’re curious to see what the foreigner has to say. In Brazil, there are approximately 180 million people and three quarters of those are Catholics. So the Catholic Church is one of the most important institutions in Brazil.”

Serbin began research on “Needs of the Heart:” in 1987 as a doctoral candidate at the University of California, San Diego. He used it as his dissertation in 1993, and over the years, continued his research. He has traveled to Brazil every year since, interviewed more than 150 people for the book, and visited more than dozen archives to gather documents on the church. He knows that it’s not typical for an author to take two decades to write a book.

“One of the reasons I took 20 years is I did what most people would not do,” he said. “Most professors when they become Ph.D.s, within a few years, they publish their dissertations as books. I did something unusual. My first book, ‘Secret Dialogues’, should have been my second book, but I made it my first book because it was more urgent for the Brazilian public and the scholarly community here in the U.S. to see what I had to say in ‘Secret Dialogues.’ That was a book about secret negotiations between the church and military regime in Brazil. I did the right thing by waiting, because I had a lot more time to think about it to reflect, interview more people and look at more documents. It’s a much, much better book because I waited.”

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