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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Books on Big Issues - Prefaces and marketing blurbs

I did a rare thing yesterday – I went back to the "Defending Politics" book I had just finished and reread it from beginning to end, this time more carefully marking the key sections with a pencil.
I had started my last post by saying that it was a “model of the sort of writing we need in these times” - and then went on to create a table which explored different aspects of the 8 basic arguments the book presented
I would now like to try to identify what it was that so impressed me – and to use that hopefully to make a wider point about the craft of publishing our thoughts

What I liked about “Defending Politics”
- The book was short (180 pages) – almost an extended essay. You felt the guy had a thesis – and knew how to hone it down to its essentials
- The text was broken up – every third or fourth page or so had a heading or an indented section which signalled a movement in the argument. My eyes glaze over when I see a chapter of 30 pages of densely-written text - with no graphics, tables or pictures to relieve the pressue….
- each chapter gave an early hint of the basic argument it would present. This was clearly someone who had reread his text with a reader’s eye; asked himself what it was saying; and then ensured that the words actually expressed his intended meaning!
- there were lots of book references – but not of the normal sort in footnotes; or end bibliographies (which often leave me with the feeling of one up-manship!). These were, rather, short lists in the body of the text – generally exemplifying different sides of an argument.  

I readily admit to being a policy geek - and have therefore too readily exposed myself to turgid academic prose. But my patience started to wear thin some years ago with books on important topics which were simply unreadable. Life is simply too short to waste time on writers who feel they have to use clumsy sentence structure and/or pad their material with verbosity. 

A year or so ago I revealed some litmus tests I used whether to buy/read a book on any of the "Big Issues of the Day" – as well as my ten tricks for fast reading and comprehension – which are worth repeating –

How to get the most out of a non-fiction book
- Read a lot (from an early age!)
- Read widely (outside your discipline)
- Read quickly (skim)
- If the author doesn’t write in clear and simple language, move on to another book asap. Life’s too short……Bad writing is a good indicator of a confused mind

For each book
- before doing anything else - read the reviews (surf)
- identify the questions these suggest – you should never read a book without knowing what you want to get out of it!
- Mark (with a pencil) passages you both like and don’t like – with underlines, question-marks, ticks, comments and expletives
- Write brief notes to remind you of the main themes and arguments (this will help you remember better; and also helps build up an archive)
- see whether the author explicitly recognises and properly discusses other schools of thought than the one (s)he is pushing
- Check the bibliography at the end – to see if there are any obvious names missing (I grant you that this requires some familiarity with the subject)

This, of course, puts the onus on readers - but the real problem rests with authors and publishers...It is they who swamp our minds with thousands of titles and excessive verbosity. Greater self-discipline is needed..I suggest that, when they come to draft their Prefaces and marketing blurbs, they consider the following -  
- tell us what’s distinctive about your book; ie why you feel you need to add to what is already a huge literature on the subject
- “position” your book – at best this will require you to offer a typology of the different schools of thought on the issue
- convince us that you have not only read the “relevant literature” but that you have done so with a reasonably open mind; At best, offer an annotated list of key reading - with your preferences. This will give us a sense of your stance and fairness
- give a “potted version” of each chapter. Most think-tank reports have executive summaries. I don’t know why more authors don’t adopt the same approach. Amazon, some publishers and Google offer free access to excerpts – but the selections are fairly random.
- use more tables….and graphics

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