Dry history

I’d have to agree with Ariel that far too may historians, in the elusive quest for ‘respectable, heavyweight’ histories can veer too far into detail at the expense of readability. Regardless of how accurate your historical facts or how insightful your theories, if no-one reads the book, it is useless. Personally I attribute this, at least in part, to the fact that many academics – in many fields, not just history – write books as if they are writing for a peer-group reviewed journal. Having worked through mroe than a few of those in my time as well I can say some of them have two main problems. The first is that they are so worried their peers will find holes in thei arguments or, worse still, consider them ‘lightweight’ that they drag in far too much detail an an effort to draw on overwhelming evidence to back up their viewpoint. This has the unintentioned effect of boring the reader to death and rendering the prose unreadable. Couching far too much in ‘academese’ rather than plain English does not help.

The other problem is a much simpler one – many of these people simply don’t know how to write! Not everyone can do this well and all too many history books have grown out of a well-researched but poorly written doctoral thesis. Since one of the first rules of all kinds of writing is to know what audience you are aiming at, the author should know to make alterations from a document meant for academic research, to be read by a few experts on a panel and a book which many are meant to read. In modern academia there is an enormous pressure to publish. This has, along with the DTP revolution, lead to an explosion in the number of specialised journals and the articles to fill them, then even mroe articles refuting those articles by other academics. Indeed half of academia seems to spend it’s time refuting the other half in print. I’m all for peer review in specialise journals but certainly in my academic field I foudn it was becoming ridiculous – lecturers were publishing for the sake of publishing, not for valid academic reasons.

If you look at most job decsriptions for academic posts now you’ll see that they almost always expect the applicant not only to have a good degree or higher, research skills etc (teaching ability is low down the list – you only have to study to teach at secondary level, not higher it seems) but preferably (ie you better have it) a record of having been published. Once this meant only in said journals, of which there were many. Now it also means in book form, which frequently takes the form of basically publishing your doctoral thesis with a few pictures and hopefully a catchy title. While I am all for a range of books on many subjects and at many levels I have to say I think an awful lot – and not just vanity publications – are published for the wrong reasons and with too little editorial oversight.