“Book Breaking and Book Mending”

From Slate (via Paul Halsall):

Most academic books aren’t written to be read—they’re written to be “broken.” That should change.

In January, Karin Wulf, a history professor at William and Mary, wrote an installment for her blog, Vast Early America, that promised to teach “How to Gut a (Scholarly) Book in 5 Almost-easy Steps.” The blog post, which described a process for getting the gist of a book without having to read it cover to cover, tossed a lifeline to doctoral students everywhere struggling with the overwhelming impossibility of keeping pace with their weekly reading requirements. “I don’t always read this way,” Wulf cautioned. “For work that’s in my research area, and when I’m reading for the joy of reading history (which I try to do regularly), I read more deeply and thoroughly. But thinking historiographically, getting a sense of how evidence and argument are related within a book (or essay), and how those relate to other scholarship, I find pretty well served by this approach.”

….

There is an insidious feedback loop where academic writing is concerned. Academic works in the humanities are written by authors who survived their doctoral studies by book breaking. When successful doctoral candidates then publish, they’re inclined to write in a way that makes book breaking possible, especially if they hope to see that book on a course reading list. After all, it’s not just students who need to be able to get the gist of a new book quickly—professors must do so as well. When the target audience has no time, need, or inclination to read books in their entirety, then books at a basic level are written not to be read in a conventional sense. It’s a short bus ride from that reality to academic books that are not particularly readable. By “not particularly readable” I do not mean that ideas are not presented clearly, or that the prose is necessarily stilted or burdened by jargon. What I mean is that the books are written without regard to elements and narrative techniques that are fundamental to nonfiction in a trade setting—that academic writing is often hostile to storytelling as a way of conveying important truths.

Read the whole thing.