From the Mixed-Up Bookshelves: Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, Occidentalism; Alberto Manguel, The History of Reading

When I spoke to a group of publishers two weeks ago, I said that a world in which there were fewer specialized monographs would be a good thing. Fewer, better (and better-selling, one hopes) books from academics. What do I have in mind as a model, however? What kind of “better book” could an academic write that was still scholarly in some fashion?

I’m teaching Alberto Manguel’s The History of Reading this semester. If I had to pick a single book that I think could be a model for scholarly writing in cultural history or literary studies, I think I would pick this book. It’s a very distinctive, individual, and beautiful book. You couldn’t reproduce it exactly as a matter of disciplinary craft. This is precisely the point, however. The first principle of scholarly writing, once a scholar is done with his or her apprenticeship as a graduate student, should be to let a very distinctively observed book stew for a while, to develop its flavor and particularity.

However, Manguel’s book is also a delight because of its erudition. I am often in awe of him as I read it. I may live another 40 years and never know more than a small percentage of the texts and references and ideas that he uses. However, all scholars can aspire to a kind of erudition, and it should look like Manguel’s learning, with both breadth and depth, governed by both delight and functionality. That should be a basic part of the professional culture of academia, and it should govern what we write as mature scholars.

I don’t want to set the bar too demandingly. Manguel’s book is “best in show”. Saying that we should all write as well or as compellingly as he does is too much. More importantly, Manguel couldn’t write what he writes if there wasn’t a base of specialized knowledge for it to rest upon. It’s a great book to read, and a great book to teach, but if someone asked how it added to what we know about the history of reading, I would have to say, “not that much”. It just brings it all together very well.

The problem often in academia is that we continue to insist that many of the subjects that we study are not well known in this sense, that we must continue to do basic research. I think for many subjects in the humanities, that is simply no longer true. So what we often do is insist that books which should be Manguel-style explorations of a topic have to put on a cloak of being “basic research”, to trumpet discoveries and novel inquiries, to fill gaps. Worse yet, in the humanities, we often then turn around and theoretically rubbish the idea of knowledge as accumulative while all the while demanding that new entrants to the profession masquerade as such. We need clarity. When we’re genuinely learning something new, we should write clearly, compactly, to the point. When we’re doing the work of interpretation or explanation, then Manguel’s book is a marvelous example of what a confident and erudite scholar might choose to write.

I bring up Buruma and Margalit’s Occidentalism here to note, however, that a book of this kind can also go badly astray, that it is also possible to write a weak work of meandering, erudite commentary.

I am favorably disposed to what I take to be the central point of Buruma and Margalit’s book, that anti-Western ideologies and beliefs in the last two centuries frequently have their roots in the West itself. This argument is a kind of claim that I’ve come to label, “Stupid Foucault Tricks”, with the Letterman reference not intended to say that the argument is actually stupid. It’s more saying, “A thing that presents itself as the antithesis of something else is often in fact systemically part of what it opposes, and in fact reinforces its seeming opposite through its actions.” It’s like a constipated dialectics.

I found Paul Berman’s version of Buruma and Margalit’s argument fairly credible because he works through the genealogy of Sayyid Qutb’s thought. If you’ve got to sketch out an intellectual history and don’t have time for the methodological and structural challenges of weaving together the wider strands of culture, everyday life, social movements, institutions and so on, stick to texts and the biographies of authors, where the trail of breadcrumbs is fairly clear.

There are also way, way dumber and polemically nastier versions of the argument that Occidentalism offers, such as Dinesh d’Souza’s laughable new book. The problem with Buruma and Margalit is that they don’t have Manguel’s curiosity or his individuality, or his generosity of spirit and warmth. They want to make grandly authoritative and polemically-charged pronouncements based on idiosyncratic, careless or cherry-picked foraging through big piles of information.

The first chapter, for example, is about the “occidental city”, about anti-Western representations of the West as urban, degenerate, and so on. However, it’s a meandering mess that borders, like a lot of the book, on being manipulative. A goodly portion of what they’re talking about in the chapter is the general global history of rural or town discourse about the city, about the dangers of Babylon (by whatever local name it might go). They acknowledge as much, but that doesn’t seem to slow them down. This train’s on the tracks, whatever obstacles might lie in its way. Dealing with a vague set of widely distributed images and ideas, they’re going to somehow extract a far more specific history and then describe the part as the whole.

Manguel’s book is a book of pleasant wanderings. Buruma and Margalit, on the other hand, are often either doing sleight-of-hand or are possessed by attention-deficit disorder (the one being purposive, the other accidental or compulsive). They make pronouncements, seem about to demonstrate or prove what they have declared, and then go often on a mini-rant about some other subject entirely. The idea of the book is sound, I think. There’s something to it: nationalism, anti-Western ideologies, and so on, clearly have genealogies that lead back to European romanticism, the counter-Enlightenment, and so on. But exploring that either takes a more generous and intellectually curious vision or a more tightly drawn argument.

The History of Reading may be a good model for cultural scholarship, but it’s not a blueprint that can be easily or unerringly duplicated. Occidentalism shows how it is possible to go badly wrong with this kind of writing.

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5 Responses to From the Mixed-Up Bookshelves: Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, Occidentalism; Alberto Manguel, The History of Reading

  1. Buruma’s got a long track record of second-rate cultural studies: his work on Japan turned me off to him a long time ago, with its effectively circular essentialism (which he denies).

  2. Rachel says:

    I haven’t read Manguel’s book, but if you like fluid, concise, flaneur-like works of history, I wholly recommend Simon Winchester’s ‘The Meaning of Everything: A History of the Oxford English Dictionary’ — in the genre of popular history, but at its very darndest best, and exhaustively researched without sounding as though it is.

    and thank you for flagging up a v. important point: that perhaps too much emphasis these days is placed on PhDs needing to fill some unplumbed gap. I feel like this legitimates some really godforsaken PhD topics, such as ‘the manufacture of black boots in seventeenth-century Hull’, or somesuch. There is definitely something to be said for works of masterful synthesis. I am all for it.

  3. ADM says:

    Hi Tim — I have just awarded you a Thinking Blogger Award, which means you’re tagged if you want to be.

  4. Gavin Weaire says:

    All of Manguel appeals to me except where he deals with antiquity. And that’s the problem – the book appeals to me except where it deals with the stuff that I know anything about. I have particular doubts about ch. 3. Manguel clearly wants to present a straightforward march-of-progress narrative, and is prepared to do, if not whatever it takes, at least a lot to keep that narrative simple and without nuance. And at least one wildly extravagant claim follows from that narrative.

    This is obviously the usual specialist’s snarky take on the generalist. But it really is a problem for me (and I’m really not all that much of a specialist). Presumably, there are equally serious problems that people who know about other things would have with other sections of the book. This is exactly the sort of thing I read in my spare time – but I don’t feel that I can *trust* it.

    At least the dissertation on black boot manufacture in C17th Hull probably is reliable on black boot manufacture in C17th Hull. I don’t think I’m the only one who would have absolutely no problem with that sort of dissertation if it were not for the reality that the current structure of an academic career is likely to mean that such a dissertation must be published soon after as a monograph making the case that black boot manufacture in C17th Hull is the key factor in the rise of modernity. If it could just sit in Ann Arbor waiting for someone with an interest in boots and/or Hull to order it, then I’d be fine with it.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    That *is* the problem in a nutshell. All generalist cultural history says something that is factually wrong or stretched in the interest of telling a generalist story, I think. Probably in some inverse proportion to how engaging or interesting it is. So there’s also some kind of ecological balance that is vital and necessary here.

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