Thursday, March 24, 2011

a delicate matter about a crappy book

I'm working on a book review for an academic journal. I won't say what journal or what the book is, because, to be blunt, the book is really bad (so far - I'm about halfway through it). In fact, it's so bad, it's making me angry.

Back in grad school, I wrote a satire called The 12-Step Program For Academic Success, spoofing the career-building behavior of some of the academics I knew. One of the steps was putting together an academic book or "volume" (because in the 90s, nobody called them books - they were all "volumes" or "works"). Part of the gag was that academic books are, generally, horribly written, and patched together from articles that the author previously published.

I didn't know then to call this behavior "duplicate publication" or "self-plagiarism," but it didn't set well, and still doesn't. Maybe a series of articles is worth binding together, and maybe that series presents a coherent line of thought, but in my opinion, the vast majority of academic books put together thus is neither.

The present instance is not only incoherent chapter-to-chapter, but within each chapter there are gaps or clashing themes that the author has made no real pretense of making coherent. Readers are apparently supposed to assume that it flows and makes sense.

Part of me is angry because this has been published, and I don't have a book published. (That's pretty stupid, since I haven't written a book. But envy isn't always rational.) A larger part of me is angry because I have to read it to write the review - allegedly - and I promised, and have already written nasty notes in the margin, so I can't really back out of it or follow my whim to throw the book as far away as I can. A still larger part of me is righteously angry because it's so crappy, so clear an example of crappy academic behavior, and because I can see a much better way to approach the topic and to form the arguments than this hack did.


Now, the delicate matter. If I write the review I feel the book richly deserves - a right thrashing - what happens then? What if I meet this guy sometime? What if his friend shows up at a conference where I'm presenting a paper?

I've written a couple very negative reviews of books before, but they were for the journal of the American Hegel Society, The Owl of Minerva, back in the anarchic days of the Hegel Society, when scathing, terribly nasty disputes via email discussion thread typified the prevailing ethos. (Hot damn, it was fun!) Most academic discussion, in print at least, is much more polite, and a lot of academics are thin-skinned, and some are vicious.

The topic, too, is one that attracts a lot of academics who believe themselves to be good-intentioned, but who are easily provoked. Could be some nastiness coming my way in return.

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