When is a book not a book?

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There are a few things that frustrate me about a number of the books that I have read recently. One is those extravagant examples seemingly designed to showcase the brilliance of some penetrating thinker:
Barry (not his real name) is a basketweaver from Clapham. Having been reared by donkeys, when Barry married he was not prepared for Javelina's (not her real name, either) refusal to eat hay. The arrival of little Anthraxa (another made-up name, mercifully) only deepened the fissures in Barry's relationship with Javelina. When Barry first came to see me, with wild eyes and evidence of a recent hay-eating binge in his three-day growth of stubble, I could see that there was much work to do to get to the root of the matter.
Am I the only reader who has begun to twitch when I read yet another such opening to a book? Am I alone in finding these introductions slightly twee and tiresome? They seem to be beloved of those who write books about counselling. Of course, by the end of the chapter, we find that the dazzling counsellor with his penetrating insights has - over a shorter or a longer period - turned Barry off the hay and brought him to sweeter pastures.

Alongside of this are those books - often sermons turned into volumes - where the author clearly subscribes to the "open with an illustration" school of preaching and feels obliged to start with some allegedly-gripping anecdote which is then mercilessly wrestled into position and bound, sometimes by very tenuous threads, to the point of the chapter. After twenty such excursions on the trot, one becomes weary.

I am not a particular fan of study questions and guides - I think that they encourage lazy reading - but I am still less enamoured when they require nothing more than a simple regurgitation of the contents of the chapter rather than a genuine engagement with and response to the material. So, "Briefly outline this chapter," or "Does this chapter teach that . . ." (requiring nothing more than a "Yes" or "No" answer), or "What four headings divide up this material?" Inanity!

Of course, I cannot begin to describe the horrors of poor editing and bad proofreading. In a fallen world there are going to be mistakes, as any author or editor or publisher will acknowledge, but some publishers seem to have given up the ghost on this one, welcoming in poor grammar and spelling, inconsistencies of approach to all aspects of the writing, and formatting that shifts back and forth like the restless waves of the sea. Honestly, if you are in the business of publishing, it seems worthwhile to ensure that your authors know how to pick up a pen, and - if not - to employ people who can give the impression that they do. For the angst of the author with a publisher who manages the feat of introducing errors that did not before exist, I offer Wodehouse's Printer's Error as a salve for the soul (if you follow the link you will have to look in the sidebar, as - quite splendidly - the only standalone page I found contains a spelling mistake at a key point in the poem).

I am distressed by countless endorsements, many of them puff-pieces masquerading as thoughtful commendations, when there is reasonable evidence that the book itself remained unread. I am grieved by "Forwards" or "Forewards" (I am not sure whether it is worse to misspell your mistake or more commendable at least to approximate to the right word) rather than forewords. I mourn over endnotes - seemingly designed to render the reading process the most disjointed experience imaginable - and would gladly make myself available to lead an international force for the eradication of those foul blots on the publishing landscape.

However, the thing that is really getting the Walker goat at the moment is the book that is not a book. Some of these tomes also struggle with the issues given a gentle airing above, but many are paragons of virtue in these respects. What, then, irks? It is this: that they are clearly not books. Rather they are thinly-veiled theses, lightly massaged so that they include the word "book" rather than "thesis," shoved between a couple of glossy covers and repaginated. Reading them is a bit like watching a baseball player being given a cricket bat and sent out to the middle with the exhortation, "Go on, you're used to hitting the thing," and expecting him to do the business.

And so we enter a world weighed down with turgid academic prose and clunky scholarly signposts: "In this chapter, we shall consider point x, before moving on in following sections to look at points y and z." While this may be all the rage in a university or seminary, enshrined within some ancient rubric for papers and theses, it does not translate well into a book, which is and ought to remain a different beast, even when intended for a more academic audience. Perhaps it is an expression of the points-scoring mentality of academia? I recall a rather intense discussion with a tutor at university in which he extolled the virtues of a high-scoring essay in which the person responsible for the Frankenstein's monster in question had merely cobbled together all the necessary data, jumped through all the required hoops, and produced something that satisfied the department's criteria for a high-scoring essay. My point was that it was barely coherent tripe, and that surely a student of English literature ought to be able to write in such a way as to hint or suggest that he or she had once or twice been exposed to some of the finest prose stylists that the English speaking world has to offer, and - further - that it might be considered a bonus if the piece manifested the ability to spell with at least a measure of consistency if not accuracy.

Where was I? Ah, yes. I have no objection to a book being written for the academic market, but it still ought to read like a book, and not a shifty scholarly monograph. Where, I ask, is the reading pleasure? Where is the joy of being guided through a developing argument almost imperceptibly, rather than marshalled by the literary equivalent of a bossy tour guide who keeps yelling, "In a few minutes we shall be turning left to look at this statement; then we shall be turning right to look at a quote"? Summaries and conclusions can, under certain circumstances, simply impress themselves upon you almost without you realising as you are inescapably guided to the point being made; they do not necessarily need to be aggressively lit by the harsh glare of literary neon lights as the next stage in the unfolding argument.

Please do not misunderstand me: I have no objection whatsoever to scholarly research and academic labour underpinning the writing of a book, and hugely appreciate the efforts that lie behind a really good book. But the fruits of such effort ought to be the starting point for a book that is intended to be purchased and appreciated, not the penultimate stage in the publishing process. (Incidentally, the same might be said of written sermons: because it sang from the pulpit does not mean that it will soar from the page, and too many books read like what they are - rapidly transcribed and poorly edited sermons, or shoddily adapted sermon notes, in which no one has taken the time to adapt to the kingdom of the written word what once belonged to the realm of the spoken word.)

The results of such short cuts tend to be ugly, stodgy and clunky, awkward and heavy efforts that rob the reader of the experience provided by the best books - allowing the reader to devote his reading energies not to overcoming the hurdles presented by the prose but to engaging with the thoughts that the prose communicates. The best books read like what they are - like books, and not like carelessly manhandled monographs. The construction and style of the writing does not bar the gates to the reader but politely and unobtrusively opens the door to the real substance of the volume. So, please, let a book be what it is, and - whatever else you might legitimately be required to do along the way by way of preparation - when the time comes to lift the quill, grasp the pen, or lay finger on keyboard, put in the effort required to write writing for readers.
Posted May 16, 2013 @ 4:22 AM by Jeremy Walker
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