I tend to read academic work outside my fields of specialization to a fairly significant extent, which I suppose is not news to anyone who has read this blog for any length of time.
Some of what I read I have a specific intent or reason for reading, some of it I pick up for more whimsical reasons, as a way of trying to encounter something new or surprising.
When I pick up a new book in my field, whether I buy it or get it from the library, I generally have ways of finding out what the reputation of the book is among fellow specialists. I know how to read the book’s filial declarations, its historiographical origin myth. I know the sociology of the author’s training, usually. I can detect the subtle hints of stronger critiques in mild book reviews in academic journals. I can read the patterning of how and when the book appears in the bibliographies and footnotes of other scholarly work. And I have lots of opportunities to ask friends in my field, “Hey, what do you think of this book?”
When I’m looking at a scholarly book that I bought or checked out on a more whimsical or personal basis, I have almost none of those tools to decipher what other scholars think of the book. If the book is sufficiently famous in the long haul, it will be discussed substantively and evaluated critically in the text of other monographs or articles. If there’s a review essay out there that includes the book, I’ll probably get a good contextual reading of the book from looking at that essay.
But ordinary academic book reviews are almost useless for getting a handle on whether a book is generally known, respected, criticized, used, thought about, in a given field of specialization. They’re heavily formulaic. Very rarely does anyone want to really deliver a probing assessment of a monograph or the overall reputation of a scholar in that format, for a variety of reasons. (Not the least of which, there often isn’t that much to say besides, ‘Good scholarly book, useful enough in its own way if you’re interested in that sort of thing.’)
The Internet can help a bit, but not much if what you want to know is the mainstream scholarly consensus about a book or a scholar within a given field of specialization.
For example, yesterday, I decided I wanted to know more about Hillel Schwartz and The Culture of the Copy. So what did I find? He had a poem at Ariana Huffington’s blog, and has published poems elsewhere. He’s an independent scholar rather than someone holding an academic post, which one person at Amazon saw fit to make anonymously snide remarks about. Kevin Kelly’s blog has an interesting entry that incorporates the argument of The Culture of the Copy. I found a number of reviews in mainstream periodicals and newspapers that more or less reacted to the book the same way I did, that it’s example-rich and argument-poor. I found that Schwartz’ earlier work on representations of weight and bodies (which I haven’t read) is well-known in some activist circles. I found that he’s written scholarly reviews in scholarly journals, and that his books have been reviewed by significant academic figures. A few of the more academic reviews of The Culture of the Copy that I found manage to get in subtle digs at the non-academic character of the prose or layout, as one put it, “often entertaining rather than edifying”. You could listen to Schwartz at Wisconsin Public Radio if you like. He’s working at the Millennium Institute.
This is a lot to know about someone, and it definitely gives me a picture. It still doesn’t really tell me about general reputation capital of the book or the author within specific scholarly fields. Would I get a blank stare if I mentioned the book while hanging around with my friends in the English Department? Get an enthusiastic reception if I dropped the name while at a meeting with my friends in anthropology departments? Have art historians regard the book as so much a basic tool of their trade that discussing it is old hat? Looking for citations of the book gives me a further clue: it’s cited reasonably often in work from the last five years (I found 52 citations in a quick search, some of them reviews.) The citations come mostly from art historians, cultural historians, scholars working on technology, a few miscellaneous sorts of articles in the humanities. I even found it cited by a few friends of mine whose judgement I really trust, so that’s an especially comforting sign.
Because that’s what is at the bottom of wanting to know about the reputation capital of an author or a given work of scholarship. You want to know in advance about the state of conversation, what the status of a work is. Why? Some good reasons, some not-so-good reasons. The good reasons are that you don’t want to reinvent the wheel, spend time building an interpretation of a given work in isolation. You want to work collectively, to take advantage of the shared institutional wisdom of disciplines and departments. Knowledge is too big now to do it alone, and in any event, who would want to? The whole power of academia, of post-Enlightenment knowledge production in general, is tied up in its intertextuality. Moreover, this is what erudition is all about: you’re supposed to know what’s been said and thought about a given work or idea if that idea matters to you in some way. That’s your job as a scholar.
The less-good reasons? You want to find out what you’re supposed to think about a book, to sound and act properly within hierarchies, to put on the appropriate intellectual clothing to fit the fashion of the moment. It’s very awkward to come into an ongoing conversation, express enthusiasm for a book that you’ve read more or less in isolation from other scholars, and find out that everyone thinks it’s total rubbish. (Or that they’ve never heard of it.) Depending on how secure your place in academic hierarchies is, if you do enough of that, you can take a pretty serious hit to your own reputation capital. A senior, respected scholar who has idiosyncratic passions for scholarly works often kicks off a new trend; a graduate student who expresses the same is likely to get snidely reprimanded by other grad students and by professors. (I think this paranoid attention to what the fashionable assessment of a given scholar’s output might be is often at its worst in late-stage graduate training.)
Maybe sometimes that’s an appropriate reaction. You do have to do some homework. Coming into a seminar and getting all excited because you just read this “Max Weber” guy and he seems awfully interesting, gee whiz has anyone heard of him: ok, that’s not good. But a lot of the time, the sensation of skating on thin ice when you venture an opinion or drop a name from a work whose pedigree is unknown to you is motivated by a much more negative kind of attention to academic fashion. It shouldn’t hurt to be curious, to be exploratory, to admit to knowing very little about a text that interests you. In theory, that’s what colleagues are for, to either join you in an exploration or tell you about the journeys that have long since been taken by others.