A friend of mine once quipped that reviewing academic books is the most expensive way of buying them. Case in point, I just finished reading a book which retails at $39.95, which is a fairly modest price for an academic press, but then this is Princeton University Press we’re talking about, so chances are that they can get a few people to buy this volume. I didn’t keep track of how long, in terms of hours and minutes, it took me to finish this book, which comes in at 374 pages of text to be read, sans index and everything else, but even if we want to say 60 pages an hour, that’s over six hours of just reading there. The Democratic Party is reportedly trying to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 (or, at least, they are trying to make a campaign issue of it), so if I’m counting this at work, that’s $60.60, just for the reading of said book–that’s before I spend a few hours trying to put together a 1,000-word summary and critique of it all. Just reading the book, at a fairly generous assumption of my reading speed, puts me in the hole.
Of course, some academic volumes retail in excess of $100 or more, largely because they are rather rarefied works of scholarship that will find an audience only in a handful of libraries across the world. Check out the catalogue of Brill in the Netherlands if you want to see some high-dollar books. So it’s easier to “break even” reviewing one of those, but I’m not trying to get my money’s worth. I genuinely like writing book reviews. It’s just a thing with me. It’s fashionable these days to criticize the scholarly world for producing a lot of garbage, and indeed, that criticism does not fall entirely amiss (we may certainly consign to the shitheap any analysis of the “worlds of Joss Whedon” and the like). But there is much to enjoy and ruminate over out there, too. Books that will not just change what you think but how you think, which is Salman Rushdie’s definition of a good book. And maybe I’m somehow getting consistently lucky, but I’ve found a lot to think upon, a lot to consider, a lot to challenge my worldview.
See, here’s the thing about academic writing–your book is never the final word on the subject. It’s the opener, the conversation starter. You put it out there, and it gets reviewed–sometimes unprofessionally, by folks who only read the chapter summaries and make a pretense of greater knowledge and depth. But done well, a book review is a continuation of the conversation at hand. And then the conversation continues on in journals, in other books, everything building and building as new perspectives are added and new knowledge uncovered.
Now contrast this with something more “creative.” Our “creative” writers put out their novels or poetry chapbooks and wait to be acclaimed geniuses in the pages of various journals and magazines. To part ways with a “creative” writer over his characterization of the female lead or her dim understanding of the political economy of nineteenth-century Polish villages is to “miss the point” and instantly be labeled, in their eyes, one of the Philistine hordes who simply “do not understand.” I exaggerate–a little. But rarely is a review of something “creative” seen as part of the conversation–the reviewer is not there to build upon or reinterpret the ideas put forward but rather to place an artistic imprimatur upon said work, or to deny that work its inclusion in the body of timeless classics. Maybe our dominant culture of narcissism allows for no middle ground between persecution and glorification (and our Christian heritage so confuses the two, makes them the same thing). To be misunderstood is nearly as satisfying as to be accepted, if perhaps not so lucrative. But our attitude toward art, with it being an expression of innermost soul that cannot be judged adequately by others, means that the production of art, far from starting a conversation, actually ends it there on the page.
Recently, a friend from high school got in touch with me and asked me to read over some poetry he’s been writing. And I did. And I gave honest feedback, because I’m an editor type who can do that pretty well. And we talked a bit over e-mail. I mentioned that much of my writing these days had been of the academic variety, and his response was very interesting: he told me that academic writing was okay but that I was too good a writer to be confined to that. And I think I knew what he meant, but he was saying this from a perspective that could see only a wide gap between the academic and the creative.
I’ve done my share of creative writing. I’ve published some stories and even a quickly forgotten novel, and I occasionally dabble and send something out under cover of a pseudonym. But I never hold it in a higher state than other kinds of writing, for there is a secret that I know. You see, a while back, I was kicking through the footnotes of some recent academic volume and saw an early paper of mine cited. I had two simultaneous but different reactions: “Yay, I’m a footnote!” and “Oh, I’m just a footnote.” But all of us, in the end, are footnotes. After all, we’re far enough away from the medieval mind that you’re likely to read the morality play “Everyman” only by taking a course in English literature somewhere. You’re only going to read Aquinas if you’re getting a theology degree or have descended into the darkest depths of masochism. We only have a few thousand years of literature behind us. Imagine that the human race lingers yet a while longer, the sort of span covered by Olaf Stapledon in Last and First Men. Give us a while, and even Shakespeare, the uber-human Bard, will be a footnote, relegated to the reading lists of those interested in a few centuries of human literature. The definition of life, as Darwin pointed out, is change, and it’s no challenge to imagine our societies, our selves, changing beyond recognition, in ways fantastical, in ways that make much of what we hold dear no longer relevant. That’s not to say that we’re not important, for what we are now will help create what is to come. Societies have to change–otherwise, you’re just feeding Vaal for time immemorial, or at least until someone comes along and destroys the thing that holds your world together, and what then? Societies have to adapt, have to respond to their own needs, and our supposedly immortal voices can easily find themselves on the scrap heap–will find themselves there beyond all certainty.
So here’s the thing, here’s the fundamental truth–we’re all footnotes in the end. But because of that, we’re all immortal, every single one of us. Something to chew on.