Wednesday, 1 May 2013

How to Gut a Book and Why You Shouldn't

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?


  1. Gutting books is an occupational vice, but it does have its virtues.

    I find that I have to make a concerted effort to slow down and linger when reading, but, even when I try to read a novel or narrative nonfiction slowly, I usually find myself racing ahead. (Last weekend, I finally got around to reading Larson's _Devil in the White City_, which I thoroughly enjoyed but raced through in a day).

    We gut books because it's necessary but also because it works. I agree with you about the joys of lingering, but I think its benefits are primary pleasureable rather than intellectual. The (perhaps sad) fact is that I often get more out of the books I gut -- and re-gut, as I return to pillage repeatedly for information and analysis -- than those I slowly savour. When done properly, dissecting a book can be a wonderfully active form of reading.

    When I gut a book, I'm thinking critically, taking notes, writing in the margins, and thinking about my own writing. When I linger over a book, I let myself float on the author's words and passively swim in the prose. When I'm finished savouring a good book for pleasure, I'm left with a fuller sense of the author's voice that helps me hear things differently; when I'm finished dissecting a book for work, I'm left with a set of notes that helps me see my own research more clearly.

    Lingering is undoubtedly more enjoyable and is good for the soul, though gutting is more productive and good for the brain. The latter is done more quickly but it draws on what Daniel Kahneman calls System 2, which is more deliberative and logical; the former is done more slowly but relies primarily on System 1, which is more intuitive and emotional.

    I think we need to practice and preach both types of reading, but perhaps that's just the rationalization of a compulsive book dissector.

  2. Hi Jerry,

    Gutting a book can be very useful. I agree with you here. As for the distinction between lingering and gutting as one between pleasure and work, slow going and deep analysis, I'm not so sure. It's certainly not the distinction I was making. When I'm reading I always have a pencil in hand - it's always active reading. So I don't follow you on that point.

    My real point was bout writing books - not wanting to write a book that can be so easily gutted - not wanting to write a book in which, pace much standard academic writing, the introduction tells you all you need to know. The rest is just the 'evidence' or proof. This might be all very good if what you're doing is to get into and out of the books to write a lecture, or to quickly get something for your own work. But, if this is the main reason for writing, then I'm increasingly left wondering why we don't just all devote our time to writing Wikipedia entries. Tenure committees wouldn't like it of course. But really, why not?

    One answer might be that what historians really offer is analysis. It's our arguments and thoughtful contextualization which matters. I absolutely agree with this. But then I come back to the point that is hinted at above: if we really want to trumpet our analysis and skill at putting all of this material in its proper context, then surely we ought to care about keeping readers with us. You and I aren't a good example of the kinds of readers we should be aiming for. We'll read just about anything. I still remember sitting in a first year university class and being absolutely riveted only to come out after 50 minutes to find that everyone else thought the prof was bore.

    If all we're doing is talking amongst ourselves, then it's fine. And partly we ought to talk amongst ourselves. But that's not all we should be doing. That's why we ought to think a bit more about what keeps people reading, page after page. Don't be so Victorian Jerry! Pleasure and analysis can come together (or so the Freudians would say!).

  3. Hi Chris,

    Yes, the pleasure/pain dyad is rather Victorian, isn't it. There remains an ascetic sensibility in academia that presumes that anything worthwhile must be difficult. Lingering smacks of luxury. If there's one thing academics love to complain about, it's being busy. Productively busy. Which means reading and writing a lot while complaining about it a lot.

    Anyways, I agree with you on the need to put more care and thought (and thus time) into writing and reading. I'm not going to hold my breath about historians caring about the reader in the way that you suggest, however. We all fantasize (or at least most of us) that getting tenure will free us from the chains of publishing for the sake of publishing. We all dream about doing something truly original. Something that might be worth lingering over as a writer and reader. Or evening publishing an unedited sentence fragment. But academics tend to be an awfully competitive bunch, and cookie-cutter books earn more brownie points than the type of book you're talking about. (Brownies and cookies in one sentence; it's that time of the day).

    Speaking of time and complaining, I was in a long meeting this afternoon. When I emerged from being academically busy, I checked my email to find a message about some wacky new Tory history initiative. Perhaps someone is playing a Friday afternoon trick but, if it's true, then it sounds like there will be more political pain to accompany the pleasure of talking about history. I think I'll take your advice, ditch the hair shirt and the news for the evening, and buy some cold Keith's on the way home (some things don't change).

    Have a lingering weekend,