Since 1950, the number of book titles has soared by at least 500% - in the UK case by almost 10 times. And, since 2013, the number of non-fiction titles has surpassed that in the fiction category – at least in the English language. And that is what my own experience tells me – when I visit a bookshop I am, nowadays, overwhelmed by the number of apparently relevant books…The overriding consideration as I flick through them is not the price but where to put them…..space is rapidly running out…
But, equally, I know that many of my purchases will disappoint…..I tend to blog about the ones that have repaid the effort of reading…
And readers will have noticed that I have been getting very impatient with a lot of writers – particularly those writing on the global crisis…I have increasingly been accusing them of self-indulgence – of not taking the issue or us readers seriously enough….I therefore thought it would be useful if I reproduced, with a few changes, the piece I wrote about this earlier this year
I now have a litmus test for any book which catches my eye and which I might be tempted to buy – actually not one but three -
1. Does it clearly list and comment on what the author regards as other essential texts? We need this partly to see how partial the author's sources are; partly to see the reasons for his/her selection
2. Can the author clearly demonstrate (eg in the introduction or opening chapter) that the book is the result of long thought and not just an inclination to jump on the latest bandwagon? Put bluntly, Why, despite previous efforts, does the author feels compelled to add to our reading burden???
3. Is it written in an “inviting” style? I recently suggested that what makes Yanis Varoufakis’ various books such excellent reading is the sheer originality of his prose – showing a mind at work which is constantly active……rejecting dead phrases, clichés and jargon… using narrative and stories to carry us along…..thinking constantly about how to keep the readers’ interest alive…
If a book survives this test and you’ve actually brought it home I then recommend that, before you settle down to read a book, you should do the following
- read the reviews (surf)
- identify the questions these suggest – you should never open 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. This will encourage you to return to the book
- If the author doesn’t write in clear language, move on to another book asap. Life’s too short to waste on verbosity……Bad writing is a good indicator of a confused mind
- Write brief notes on the main themes and arguments (it helps the memory; and, if transcribed, they help build up an archive)
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...
I suggest that, when they come to consider the final draft and layout of a book, they consider the following –
1. 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
2. “position” your book – ie tell us what you consider the key texts in the field (and why) and how your book relates to them. At best you can offer a typology of the different schools of thought on the issue
3. 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
4. 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.
5. use more tables….and graphics. Readers can absorb only so much continuous text. And if the subject matter is difficult, it helps if – at least every couple of pages – there is a heading which gives a sense of the argument…
Their bibliographies may look impressive and their chapter headings riveting but the books increasingly suffer, in my view, from the following sorts of deficiencies –
- They are written by academics
- who write for students and other academics
- and lack “hands-on” experience of other worlds
- the author’s speciality indeed is only a sub-discipline – eg financial economics
- the focus is a fashionable subject
- written with deadlines to meet commercial demands
- making claims to originality- but failing to honour the google scholar adage of “standing on the shoulders of giants” (despite – perhaps even because of - the extensive bibliographies)