In Ian McEwan’s novel Sweet Tooth, Serena Frome is in the midst of an affair with an older man. She’s learning about the more civilized forms of life – wine, cooking, current affairs and history – usually mixed together. As she pores through works of history she’s soon proud that she has learnt to ‘gut’ a book.
Every graduate student, I suspect, will know what she’s talking about – and possibly others will too. When you have a lot of books to get through, and when you need to know what they have to say, you learn how to get in and get out quickly, efficiently. What is fundamental? Get it. Then move on.
This probably isn’t easy to do. It certainly isn’t easy to teach. I’ve explained it – my guess is, fruitlessly – many times. Probably the only way you really learn is simply by reading a lot and then having to read more, and in too short a time. Necessity puts the knife in your hand; you do the rest.
There was a time when I thought like the young Serena Frome. I used to be proud that I knew how to ‘gut’ a book. Now, I’m not so sure.
I find myself lingering over books. I’m especially drawn to books that refuse to be gutted, that don’t show you, up front, what is essential. Perhaps, as you get older, reading becomes more like romance. You don’t want it all ‘right now.’ Or, rather, you might want this but you get to know, slowly, that taking the time is what makes it worth while.
Now, my ambition is something else altogether - to write a book that can't be gutted. A book that makes a reader linger. It’s a very unacademic ambition. We academics spend a lot of our time teaching students about – and grading students on – how to write uninteresting essays modelled on our own very, very explicit books. Is your thesis clear? Have you said it all in the first paragraph? Good. Now tell us again, and again, with a little bit of new evidence thrown in. Then tell us it all again at the end.
Susan Rabiner in Thinking Like Your Editor suggests a different approach. In the book she’s explaining the difference between serious nonfiction written for a trade press compared to non-fiction written for a regular academic press. Part of this comes down to writing a book that matches the reasons why people read books in the first place. Why does a reader stay with a book? She thinks a reader will linger 'as long as it promises to answer still unresolved questions. Each chapter must give the reader a sense of a deepening, more complicated understanding of the competing forces at play … If at least some of these tensions remain unresolved, and if the structure of the manuscript promises to resolve them, the reader reads on.’
That’s certainly what keeps you going in fiction. My guess is that she’s right about non-fiction as well.
It’s just not how we normally write academic history. Why not?