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In Which I Reveal What is Wrong with Most Books by Academics Today

For an upcoming conference I’ve been writing a brief history of the gold standard in the United States. So naturally I’ve been reading or re-reading books on the subject, both new and old, and discovering or rediscovering their merits. My overarching discovery is, not to put too fine a point on it, that almost all of the newer books are a great bore, and none too informative at that.

Why is that so? A clue is that these books are all written by academics, and mainly by academic economists and historians, whereas at least some older ones were written by amateurs, which is to say, by people who considered writing itself their craft, and who had no reason to expect their books to be purchased and read if the books weren’t reasonably entertaining as well as informative. But even the older books by academics aren’t so bad. It’s only relatively recent academic books (which for me means ones written during the last twenty years or so) that are almost uniformly godawful. And the reason for this, I suddenly realized, is that the real subject of recent academic books is, not the subject their titles advertize, but the books themselves.

To be clear: if the title of a modern academic book is “The History [or theory or whatever] of X,” the real subject is “My book on the History [or whatever] of X.” Such books are, in other words, not so much contributions to history or economics or whatever as they are exercises in literary criticism where the critic just happens, conveniently, to be the author of the book under appraisal, or (more accurately) the would-be author of the “urbook” that the actual book appraises, which urbook has not actually been written, and generally never can be, because if it were it would be an article rather than a book, and most likely a trite or banal article at that.

Once you realize what most academic books today are about, recognizing one of this sort is a piece of cake. You might, of course, infer that you’re reading one from the fact that, as you slog through it, you don’t seem to learn much at all about X, and so are tempted to skip, first paragraphs, then pages, and finally entire chapters in the hope or finding the place where the author gets to the point. What’s more you may never find that place, or it may prove so fleeting that you skip past it. That of course shouldn’t happen if the book you are reading really is about X; but if the book is really a critique of a book about X, what you are looking for, without realizing it, is what critics sometimes disparagingly call a “plot summary”–disparagingly because it’s the sort of thing one finds in mere book “reviews” rather than in works of “higher” criticism; and academics’ criticism of their own urbooks strives to be nothing if not “high.”

But as the test above, besides being painful to administer, doesn’t distinguish the true academic book-about-itself from a merely thoroughly bad book about X, there are other, surer clues to look for. These include endless throat-clearing introductory materials, announcing over and over again the book’s “purpose” and telling how the author intends to go about achieving it (“though maybe not just yet,” an honest author might add), followed by a no less endless disquisition on how the book’s arguments differ importantly–really!–from those to be found in other (also academic) books, followed at last by concluding chapters saying more or less the same thing as the introductory ones, only tossing in a little sprig of “told you so!” triumphalism.

Imagine, for a still clearer picture, a great, classic work that really is about X. Once upon a time, though far less often today, a genuine critical undertaking might have consisted of the preparation of a new edition of the work, undertaken not by the (usually deceased) author but by an editor well-versed in the whole literature on the subject. That editor might author a lengthy introduction to the new edition, and numerous footnoted commentaries on the text, some perhaps rather arcane, and an explanatory appendix or two.

Well, your modern academic book writer erects the same sort of critical scaffolding, but does it, not for someone else’s book, but for a ‘classic’ that exists only in his own head. He then serves up the scaffolding alone, packaged to look just like the imagined classic, much as the scaffolds one occasionally sees around Baroque buildings in Europe are disguised by tromp l’oeil curtains meant to fool people into mistaking them for the buildings themselves. The difference is that those tromp l’oeil-curtained scaffoldings disguise a real work in progress, whereas the academic equivalent surrounds so much hot air.

  • George Farnon

    Which of the ones you read did you think were the best on the subject?

  • Eitan

    I realize this is just a blog post and not a book, but doesn’t it seem slightly, just a little bit, just a pinch…self-referential? Sorry to airily critique your airy critique of critiques of hot air!

  • George Selgin

    Mr. Farnon: Surprisingly, there’s no good book just on the specific subject of the history of the gold standard in the U.S., so I’m drawing on a number of works in writing my paper. Pressed to name one that comes closest to what you inquire about, I’d suggest Dick Timberlake’s excellent Monetary Policy in the United States, which includes details on alterations of the standard here, but doesn’t delve into international developments that influenced U.S. decisions.

    Eitan: I know it’s supposed to be funny, but honestly I don’t see the comparison you are making. I mean, maybe it is “airy” in some sense, and maybe it’s just baloney, but how does my post strike you as really being about itself rather than about some books I don’t like?

    • Eitan

      The parallel is that you write “Well, your modern academic book writer erects the same sort of critical scaffolding, but does it, not for someone else’s book, but for a ‘classic’ that exists only in his own head.” And in the blog post you floridly write a critique without mentioning a single actual book so that it may to your mind be substantive, but to a reader like me it’s hard to find the point. Anyway, it struck me as ironical, but please don’t be offended :-)

      Professor Selgin, you are so smart and have so many great ideas which you explain so well about free banking, productivity norm, coinage, etc. I love reading your positive accounts of interesting ideas, but I’m less excited when you write dismissive digs towards others, deserving though they may be. I say all this as a fan.

      • George Selgin

        Well, that’s a little different, Eitan. I refrained from mentioning specific books because…well, because I don’t suppose it will serve any purpose other than to make a few more lasting enemies in the profession, which i need like a hole in the head. But I really think there is a syndrome out there that, like bad language fads, has caught on and deserves some critical notice. It is, by the way, much worse in history than in economics.

        I do appreciate that there’s more potential gain to be had by my readers from positive economics contributions I may offer here (and thanks much for the kind remarks about those) than from me carping. However the carping is a consumption good for me!

  • George Machen

    “Monetary Policy Under the International Gold Standard: 1880-1914,” Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 1959, Arthur I. Bloomfield, Professor of Economics and Finance at the University of Pennsylvania

    cf. Bloomfield, A. I. (1959), Monetary Policy Under the International Gold Standard, Reprinted Arno Press, NY, 1978

    • George Selgin

      Yes, a valuable source. But but of course it covers only part of the U.S. gold standard story, and the reference to “monetary policy” rather begs the question of what the classical gold standard really was and, how it really worked.

  • MichaelM

    I’ll be honest, I’m a little lost as to what is going on here. I’m not a formal academic, so I don’t read THAT incredibly many academic books, but many of those I have read to indeed get right to the point. Some do indeed display some of these signs (such as constantly repeating the purpose of the book) but they will usually have some meat to them as well.

    I hate to ask you to risk making more enemies, but I’m curious as to exactly what kind of book this applies to.

    • George Selgin

      Well, to be honest, “Most” in my title was meant to be hyperbole; make it “many.”

      The books I have in mind read like dissertations and probably most of them began as such; alternatively the writers may have assumed that their books should read like their dissertations. In either case you get the endless self-promotion stuff, and the “literature review” which consists of so many comparisons of other works with the one at hand (in a book meant to be read erudition is of course a good thing, but it ought to be admitted were it helps the argument along, and not put on parade) and, often enough, exceedingly dry prose. The (perhaps exclusive) need to make an “original” contribution may itself prevent such books from being very useful except to a very small number of specialists even when they appear to address a broader subject.

      But no: I don’t want to name names. If the shoe doesn’t fit the books others are reading, I am happy for them. Perhaps they should be the ones to name some names, so that they can make some new friends, and so that I might change my recently jaundiced mind!

  • Dylan Evans

    This is one of the funniest things I’ve read for a long time! Very accurate too. Excellent stuff.

  • paul1andrews

    I think you make a very good point.

    Away from economics, “A New Kind Of Science” by Steve Wolfram very much follows the pattern you describe. Much of it is self-promotion of material “coming up soon” in the book. The similarity ends there though, in that the book does have something very important and original to say. It’s just unfortunate that the reader is forced to chew through much fluff to reach it.

    What I wonder is, why this should be so? What is it about the modern character that leads academics to write in this way? Or perhaps there has always been a preponderance of these types of books, but we don’t see the older examples as they are now (deservedly) out of print?

  • Phillip Ng

    I have never preformed such a type of focused, exhaustive reading as you, Dr. Selgin. However, I tend to agree with your scaffolding-of-nothing analysis. I am working these days and therefore a bit cutoff from academia or, rather, a pure pursuit of learning. Nevertheless, I have on several occasions purchased a non-fiction, academic book because I genuinely desired to learn the subject. The typical pattern is that I lay it aside after a couple of weeks because I find the work incomprehensible at best, impenetrable at worst.

    The two most enjoyable economics readings I ever did were both in your class: “The Birth of Wealth” by William Bernstein and “The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley. I liked those books because they taught me an idea and because they thought-frameworks as well. I frequently cite them in discussions on economics or politics.

    Would you classify these books as “academic”? Do you hope to emulate these works? What are some differences between their formats and what you hope to produce?

    The only think I hate more than those academic books you mentioned are the pulp-nonfition, world-explaining books like “Guns, Germs and Steal”, “Collapse”, and “The Seven Killer Apps of Civilization”. Bleh!

    Ps. I know you shouldn’t put quotes around titles of books, but I can’t underline.

    • Phillip Ng

      I should have written “a pursuit of structured learning”.