Monday, January 5, 2015

We Who Write Bad Books

I read some interesting quotes by George Kennan, the diplomat and historian, so on impulse I bought his diary and a short book he wrote called Around the Cragged Peak, which was sort of a grab bag of his personal musings on politics, foreign relations, culture and whatnot. I figured anything he wrote would be worth reading, because he lived so long (101 years) and was involved in so many momentous events of the Cold War, an era I've always taken an interest in.

Well, I figured wrong. The diary was so whiny that I wished I hadn't ordered the book, but it was already done. I understand that a lot of diaries are whiny, but you shouldn't publish the ones that are. One thing I did learn was why the military has always been uncomfortable with the State Department. Guys like Kennan, Dulles (both of them) and James Jesus Angleton were so literate and glib that they could say one thing and then convince you they'd meant the exact opposite and that it was your fault for misunderstanding.

The book was better than the diary, but man, was it long-winded. He takes about four pages to say that nationalism is good as long as you don't take it too far. You know how Strunk and White say to omit needless words, like "at this juncture it is perhaps not inappropriate to point out that"? He must have skipped that chapter. I've come to dislike that sort of excessively precise writing, like "He had had a serious operation" instead of just "He had a serious operation". If you need to support your ideas with so many props and ornaments, maybe you had better consider whether they are good ideas. I think I mostly agreed with Kennan's politics. I think.

Come to that, I've lost interest in the "magnum opus". I used to think it would be cool to write a magnum opus; you know, put down on paper the sum total of your views on some topic of importance. But why? The theme of a magnum opus isn't the ideas, it's the author. And let's face it, most of us aren't that interesting, except to people who know us personally. If you want to write a magnum opus, you should give it away free to your friends and family, not charge a stranger money for it.

The technical equivalent of the magnum opus is the textbook or handbook. When I see a textbook with a grandiose title like Fracture: An Advanced Treatise, I just want to run in the other direction. Geezus, a treatise? The worst one is The Structure of Evolutionary Theory by Gould. The fact that he didn't just call it Evolution should be a warning to you.

I got drafted into writing a chapter of one of these magisterial handbooks about five years ago. The trouble with handbooks is that they usually can't get the best people to contribute, because the best people are too busy to write handbook chapters. I happened to be in a slow spot in my career where I had some free time and was looking for something to do, so I finished my chapter right away, and the editors used it to get the whole project greenlighted for publication. You can guess that all the big shots who were supposed to write the other chapters took a lot longer, and in fact the book is still not done. At this rate, the material will be obsolete before it ever hits the presses. If you think you need a handbook, my advice is to find a good review article written by a bona fide expert.

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