Book Breaking and Book Mending

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

A cartoon book broken in half.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

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.”

I knew well the process of what I call “book breaking,” having recently completed a Ph.D.
in history at York University in Toronto. Wulf’s excellent advice is indispensable to anyone embarking on doctoral studies. But the blog post also resonated with my misgivings about academia’s messy relationship with books, with how its books are written, published, and consumed.

I have an unusual relationship with the academy. After a career of some 30 years as a journalist and author, I returned, at the age of 51, to higher education to secure a history Ph.D. I was never sure of exactly what I would do with one, if I survived the process, but it was a now-or-never challenge that I thought I should accept. One of the hopes the academy had for me was that I could bridge the worlds of academic history and “public” history; I had published a number of history books with leading trade imprints (Doubleday, Penguin, Bloomsbury), and I had a book on Christopher Columbus and John Cabot, The Race to the New World, in edit at Palgrave Macmillan in New York as I began my course work in the autumn of 2010. I knew academic writing was different than trade writing, but I was unprepared for the way reading—and consequently writing—was treated in the context of academia.

Every week for two semesters, I would attend a seminar in each of my three coursework fields—Canadian, American, and indigenous history—to discuss the week’s readings. A professor would guide debate and mark our performance over the span of about three hours. A week’s readings were a mix of books and journal articles that were drawn from a larger course reading list, or syllabus. A typical week would add up to about three books per course (the rule of thumb seemed to be that four journal articles were the equivalent of one book). That meant reading nine books a week. The entire syllabus of one course might contain about 100 books. You then faced the hurdle of the comprehensive exams, or “comps.” At York, I was expected to know the entire syllabi of two courses, which I demonstrated in two four-hour written exams and an oral examination by a panel of professors. Then came the dissertation.

Three weeks into my coursework, I nearly quit, overwhelmed by the weekly reading requirements. My first week included Bruce Trigger’s The Children of Aataentsic, a 600-plus-page doorstopper of a history of the Huron-Wendat people, and there were about eight other books besides to digest. I learned quickly that reading in a doctoral program was not like reading at home. You had to “gut” a book, as professor Wulf describes—absorb its essential contents so that you could discuss the author’s ideas and evidence intelligently in that week’s seminar. Even for comps, with months of preparation, there was no way to read the entire syllabi of two courses. Foremost, you read the book’s introduction and conclusion, and the introduction and conclusion of individual chapters, and looked at sources and notes. If desperate, you got by with a scholarly book review—whatever it took to gather enough knowledge to discuss the work in a seminar or a comps exam.

After I earned my doctorate in 2015, I was left with a persistent disquiet about how people read and write in higher education. Because gutting or breaking a book easily is only possible if books are written in a way that allows them to be gutted easily.

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.

I wonder how many books on reading lists are ever read in depth, for pleasure, by people who have to study them. I had several hundred books on my course lists. My dissertation’s bibliography ran to 37 manuscript pages. I can only name a handful of titles that I ever read enjoyably, cover to cover. There was no time to do so, and for seven years, first as a doctoral candidate and then as a postdoctoral fellow, I read almost nothing outside my studies for pleasure. The process very nearly killed my love of reading.

The consequences of academic books being fundamentally written not to be read in full, even by an academic audience, are troubling not only for academia but for society as a whole. Society suffers when the ideas of academics are trapped inside the feedback loop of academia; academia suffers because society considers its output irrelevant. In my own work, I have probed the history of theories on human migration and race. I have shown how archaeology, scientific racism, and American manifest destiny have had a horrendous impact on indigenous people, and how corrosive, racist ideas persist in pseudohistory. I think these are important subjects, and I hope that my academic colleagues pay attention to my work, but I am also persuaded that society would be a better place if more people understood, for example, why pseudohistorical notions that ancient white people colonized America before indigenous people are popular with white supremacists. This is true of other scholars as well; we’ve seen the damage done, for example, when researchers in climate science, women’s history, and African American studies can’t get their findings into the wider world. Many scholars have been trying, in every way possible, but academic books are still striving for general accessibility.

When I recall books in my doctoral studies and research that really engaged me, I find that they were often written by academics for trade publishers: for example, Elizabeth A. Fenn’s Pox Americana and Michael Coe’s Breaking the Maya Code. But my unscientific sense is that academic publishing in the humanities and social sciences is improving and that a lot of really good books are already emerging from academic presses. As an author, you can accomplish a lot for the purposes of book breaking without “ruining” your book: writing an engaging, thorough introduction, for example, without succumbing to the ultimate plodding, summarizing book-breaking concession of “In Chapter 1, I will discuss XX. In Chapter 2, I will discuss YY.” There is also no reason to construct chapters with bland introductions that tell the reader what you are about to discuss, concluding with equally bland reviews of what you have just discussed—more telltale book-breaking structures. I have had the pleasure of publishing two academic titles with editors (Jonathan Crago at McGill-Queen’s University Press and Mark Simpson-Vos at UNC Press) who believe that books can be written to high academic standards and still be readable and accessible to a trade audience.

A number of academic presses have been producing books that presume a market beyond the halls of learning, and more presses are becoming aware of the crossover sales potential of some titles in the trade market. A few examples: University of Chicago Press has long produced books with general-reader appeal. UNC Press’ Remembering the Modoc War by Boyd Cothran (who was on my dissertation committee) is eminently readable. And one of the smallest academic houses around, University of Regina Press, had a major national best-seller in Canada in 2013 with James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains. But it takes more than a vague commitment to readability for an academic press to produce truly accessible, compelling, and enjoyable books. Readability needs an author who has some grasp of the tricks of the trade, but learning those tricks is not part of the academic curriculum. I once heard an academic at a conference announce, “We need to tell our stories,” and complain that journalists were doing it for them, with their research. And I thought: Then you need to learn how to tell stories. Academics must find writing outlets, such as blogs and general publications, that allow them to work on their prose craft, and academia must not consider those outlets at odds with scholarly pursuits. One key tool is the use of narrative to explore events, individuals, and ideas. Just as important is an embrace of biography, drilling down into the lives of individuals so that they become well-rounded people or characters. (Spoiler alert: People like to read about people.)

Academic presses may need to adopt a more trade-oriented approach to how manuscripts are prepared. Fostering readability requires an editor who wants to publish readable works and knows how to coach a writer. A trade editor has an important role in substantive editing, in helping to shape the manuscript as a work in progress. The standard academic system, though, is for the author to turn in a finished manuscript with footnotes and bibliography for evaluation by the editor and the blind peer reviewers. Academic presses need to rethink processes of acquisition and editing, and begin to secure and foster editors with skills beyond those involved in turning a doctoral dissertation into an easily breakable book.

Academic authors and academic presses need to aspire to produce books that are more than a study burden, or a checkmark in a scholar’s to-do list for personal progress through academia’s ranks. Anyone who has been through the ordeal of a Ph.D. has had the experience of breaking or gutting a book to survive a week of seminar discussions, yet thinking, That book looked interesting. When I get a chance, I want to read all of it properly. With a focus on craft, narrative, and real editing, academic publishing could foster and reward that impulse with more books that deserve it.

This essay is adapted from a post on Douglas Hunter’s blog.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.