“I’ll only buy a book for the way it looks, and then I stick it on the shelf again.”

The last Radiolab podcast I listened to was kind on insane. It featured Jad Abumrad’s brother-in-law, who apparently wrote a really, really dense book about nihilism called In the Dust of This Planet, which nobody read, but the cover of which has become some sort of high fashion meme.

Jad’s brother-in-law, nonetheless, takes all of this in stride. He claims, quite eloquently, that he would keep writing along even if nobody else ever read it. Remembering the very early days of this blog, I sympathize. I think I was writing for purposes of therapy at that point, but I’ll be damned if I have time for that kind of uncompensated therapy anymore. If nobody is going to read the stuff I write then I don’t want to write it anymore. This explains why the big post I wrote last week didn’t come out here, at this still comparatively lonely new blog. It’s up at Chronicle Vitae now.

You can see my (entirely different) point there by clicking that link, but for now I want to use the opening story of that piece to make a point about academic writing. Besides not checking publishers’ lists in advance, the other reason that I had to send the manuscript that was my dissertation to seven publishers before it got accepted was that it had no independent reason for being. I was writing on labor policy in the American steel industry, which had been done for death, and my goal was to find a hole in that vast literature. I found it, but nobody cared if that hole ever needed filling.

The initial reason I started writing this wonderful book about the history of the American ice and refrigeration industries was that the whole subject had been untouched for fifty years. It was wide open! But I now realize that that simply shouldn’t matter. Works of history need to be able to stand on their own, and if they aren’t readable by people who nothing about the subject coming in then they do not stand on their own.

Laboring seven+ years on a single work and selling only 350 copies worldwide (if you’re lucky) is pure insanity. And the problem here isn’t technology; it’s academic culture. The only people who can change that are ourselves.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Susan Amussen

    We tell grad students to find a gap in the literature, because that’s a good way to start. Even then, you need to care about it: I’m pretty sure that most of the people I knew who either never finished or dragged on forever had a topic that may have made intellectual sense, but didn’t resonate with them. But after the dissertation, you should be following your nose. The great works of history, I think, are ones you didn’t know needed to be written before you read them – they allow you to see something you didn’t see before. They are also written to be read.

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