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.