Gutting Academic Books

99bbc-academic2bbooksDouglas Hunter has published a really interesting piece at Slate about the practice, common among graduate students in history, of understanding the argument of a book without really reading it.  This process is often described as “gutting.”   Hunter explores the implications of this practice.  Here is a taste of “Book Breaking and Book Mending“:

I wonder how many books on reading lists are ever read in depth, for pleasure, by people who have to study them. I had several hundred books on my course lists. My dissertation’s bibliography ran to 37 manuscript pages. I can only name a handful of titles that I ever read enjoyably, cover to cover. There was no time to do so, and for seven years, first as a doctoral candidate and then as a postdoctoral fellow, I read almost nothing outside my studies for pleasure. The process very nearly killed my love of reading.

The consequences of academic books being fundamentally written not to be read in full, even by an academic audience, are troubling not only for academia but for society as a whole. Society suffers when the ideas of academics are trapped inside the feedback loop of academia; academia suffers because society considers its output irrelevant. In my own work, I have probed the history of theories on human migration and race. I have shown how archaeology, scientific racism, and American manifest destiny have had a horrendous impact on indigenous people, and how corrosive, racist ideas persist in pseudohistory. I think these are important subjects, and I hope that my academic colleagues pay attention to my work, but I am also persuaded that society would be a better place if more people understood, for example, why pseudohistorical notions that ancient white people colonized America before indigenous people are popular with white supremacists. This is true of other scholars as well; we’ve seen the damage done, for example, when researchers in climate science, women’s history, and African American studies can’t get their findings into the wider world. Many scholars have been trying, in every way possible, but academic books are still striving for general accessibility.

Read the entire piece here.

3 thoughts on “Gutting Academic Books

  1. As I age reading many pages quick is impossible

    In recent reviews of non academic books I find the reviewer regularly has not read the book. Or as in volume of reviews of “Educated” most felt sympathy for writer but failed to see alternative views

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  2. When I started my graduate-level studies I was given a tutorial by the university precisely on how to do this. They fully understood I wouldn’t possibly be able to read all of my assigned reading. They didn’t call it “gutting,” but made it clear it was the only way I’d survive the courses.

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