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Measuring Scholarship: The Size and Shape of Books

By: Ben P - October 15, 2013

Forgive this post for being more of a smattering of ideas than a cohesive analysis. I’ve recently been considering the size and importance of books, both in the academic field of history in general and Mormon studies in particular. This reconsideration was inspired by an essay in Perspectives on History, the magazine for the American Historical Association. (I strongly recommend reading it before reading this post.)

The essay is about the size of books. The author focuses primarily on the gendered aspect of the question—men, unsurprisingly, tend to quell their anxiety with, ahem, size[1]—but also points to the broader field’s general turning away from large books in favor of monographs small enough to be put on undergrad syllabuses. Here is a key passage:

For better or worse, the megabook on a specific subject appears to be headed for extinction. Behemoths are nowadays only allowed into print if they deal with huge subjects and appear to be synthetic (Jonathan Israel), are authored by a reliably bankable superstar (Simon Schama), or both (Eric Foner). Under financial pressure, academic press editors have become intolerant of authorial logorrhea, and most writers can be effectively cowed with the threat of either illegibly small print or a ridiculously high price. In addition, many of us nurture the fantasy of the “book that will be assigned for classes” and are well aware that anything much over two hundred pages does not stand a chance of landing on a syllabus. The Very Big Book was also an artifact of a bygone social world in which a spouse could be counted on to cheerfully pack up the house for a year’s research abroad, and to have the children picked up and dinner on the table when the scholar emerged from his study.

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Mark Staker’s Hearken, O Ye People alongside Spencer Fluhman’s ‘Peculiar People’

There is also, of course, the new rigors of the academy, the “publish or perish” model, that emphasizes the necessity to publish books frequently, thereby shattering the former myth of a “teach/scholar” who could place a lot of their time in the classroom and can afford to take decades to finish their book. A few thoughts. First, the community of Mormon history has received this transition in mixed ways, and in a way demonstrates the schizophrenic nature of the field. Those with academic and institutional attachments have typically followed the trend outlined above, as seen in the books by Sally Gordon, Kathleen Flake, Patrick Mason, and Spencer Fluhman, which are around 150-220 pages. Yet, of course, Mormon history has never been owned by those hidden away in the ivory tower, and the numerous and important work that come from those not associated with academic departments have contributed monumental works that maintain the old framework of “big books,” which can number over 500 pages. (Think Greg Prince, Mark Staker, Tod Compton, George Smith, Quinn post-BYU, etc.) There seems, to me, to be at least two reasons for this divergence. First, those not associated with universities don’t have the pressure to publish frequently and can thus take their time to produce a massive work. Second, larger books often come from non-academic presses, thus maintaining a different framework and standard for length. (And this is why Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, published with a major trade press, can tip the scales at 800 pages.) And third, and perhaps most importantly, those in academia expect a tight argument and measured prose, while many others expect heaps and heaps of data and evidence. (Similar to the social history in the 70s that produced all the behemoth books in the academy, in fact.) Actually, you could even shape how scholarly Mormon history followed that trend, as the best books from the 70s-90s were, indeed, behemoths.

I hope it goes without saying that there are benefits and pitfalls to each approach. While shorter and tighter books are often much more measured, well thought-out, and, frankly, can be read in a shorter amount of time, they also are forced to leave out a lot of data and are seldom able to approach anywhere near a “definitive” quality; larger books can spend more time developing more arguments, but can also be long-winded and redundant. The former work well in the classroom; the latter work great as references.

So, a question: will this trend of divergence continue? And is it a good thing?

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[1] An astute point from the essay: “All normative judgments aside, patterns in book sizes are probably not unrelated to enduring traditions of socialization. Men have usually been encouraged to cultivate deep focus even if it verges on the obsessive, to ignore social demands which compete with work, and to assert their presence in space. Women are taught early on to be attentive to social cues, to avoid holding forth at great length or overstaying their welcome. Female academics can be many unpleasant things but “pompous” is rarely among them, and anybody who has suffered politely through a blind date with a windbag knows in their bones that seven hundred pages is just too long.”

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12 Comments

  1. Another key factor that plays into this is simply that larger books cost significantly more to publish. With the recession and Amazon-induced starving of the book business, publishers simply cannot afford to print larger books, especially in an academic world where they often require more editing and formatting than their fiction counterparts and have much less readers.

    Comment by the narrator — October 15, 2013 @ 8:21 am

  2. Great point, Loyd.

    Comment by Ben P — October 15, 2013 @ 8:28 am

  3. …looking at the volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers Project on my shelves…

    Comment by Amy T — October 15, 2013 @ 8:58 am

  4. Loyd could not be more right. The economics of printing have changed significantly since the 1970s. Paper costs especially have increased more than people outside the industry might think possible (I exaggerate, but only slightly). While I’m sure there’s a point to new or would-be faculty having to publish “quickly,” I suspect that money’s a major factor in the decline of the “big” book … though there will always be some exceptions when publishers believe that sales will justify them.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — October 15, 2013 @ 9:51 am

  5. Thought I’d point out that the trend apparently exists in fiction as well. Cormac McCarthy said, “People apparently only read mystery stories of any length. With mysteries, the longer the better . . . . But the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you’re going to write something like “The Brothers Karamazov” or “Moby-Dick,” go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don’t care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.”

    Although scholarly non-fiction is only partly in the same market as fiction, I suppose that to the extend scholars want their work to be widely read (as you mentioned, in a classroom normally), they may also want to be on the shorter side.

    Comment by Craig M. — October 15, 2013 @ 10:15 am

  6. Great post, Ben. Another important factor to remember is that all of the slim books you list published by university presses started as longer, and more unwieldy, dissertations. Often the first question that editors from university presses ask recent phds is “how do you plan to revise your work?” And that begins the (sometimes long) process of refinement and revision (“killing your darlings”) that results in the slim published volumes. And because young phds in tenure track positions want Harvard or Yale on the spine of their first book, they willingly go through that process. I don’t know as much about how independent presses work, but I suspect that the editors don’t demand the same type of revisions from authors.

    Comment by David G. — October 15, 2013 @ 10:19 am

  7. Yes, I tend to think similarly to Craig here about how wider audiences in general might tend to prefer shorter non-fiction. I know plenty of people of are taunted by the big, long books and they never get to reading through them. We tend to have a short-attention span generation that like things in certain doses. What is then the possibility of breaking up huge works into series of shorter books based on particular themes?

    Comment by Farina — October 15, 2013 @ 11:42 am

  8. Amy T: I think the JSP is a different beast for a couple reasons: first, they have a different agenda (and institutional/financial backing) than nearly any other book or series, and second, they are a documentary history rather than a monograph/biography/interpretive text.

    Gary and Loyd: of course you are right that finances play a huge part of this, but I don’t think it’s the sole (or perhaps not the dominant) factor, especially with academic presses.

    Thanks, Craig, David, and Farina.

    Comment by Ben P — October 15, 2013 @ 12:13 pm

  9. I wonder how much of the average slimming of published monographs has to do with shifts in methodology. Especially among historians, survey and consensus models have given way to case studies. The tomes of the ’70s-’90s usually seemed to be attempting a broader survey or synthesis than what is typical today. When the scope is tuned to such a fine range of data, I’d expect the resulting scholarship to be precise and slim.

    Comment by Dave — October 15, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

  10. Ben, I don’t mean to overplay the role finances play in scholarly publishing. At the same time, we shouldn’t underplay or minimize that role. Think of the university presses that are no longer in operation or have joined with other presses or have moved to digital publishing only. While I think that few if any academic presses may admit that finances play a dominant, let alone sole, role, I think page count is a major consideration and it wouldn’t surprise me if you hear from authors who’ve been told they have to cut their manuscript by X number of pages if they want to be published. And this from university presses.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — October 15, 2013 @ 3:20 pm

  11. Not only isn’t it surprising, everybody gets told to reduce their word count, especially for first books. And it is a very good thing, because it forces the author to prune away extraneous diversions, superfluous footnotes, and meandering arguments. Thinking about the market for your book is also beneficial by forcing you to think about who exactly will read it, and what they’ll want to get out of it.

    Comment by D. Martin — October 15, 2013 @ 3:48 pm

  12. In a world where the attention span is defined by texts and hash-tags, the attention span has accordingly diminished. We live in a sound-bite world. It it cannot be put into a 25 second message that tells the entire story, it is just crunched until it can be miniaturized. Ebooks are the obvious future. Nevertheless, I regularly read 1,000 plus page books like Pillars of the Earth and the War and Peace. There is hardly a tome in theology is less than 800 pages.

    And crap there goes my entire series on Exploring Mormon Thought.

    Comment by Blake — October 16, 2013 @ 4:12 pm