Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Just a quick detour

from what's going to be a massive work-related reading endeavor over the next few days (actually I fear the odds are good that I'm going to read one more novel later tonight, it arrived this morning & it's something I've been particularly looking forward to--more about this later if I do indeed succumb to weakness of will) to recommend something I've just finished reading for work, a wonderfully good book by Daniel Kevles called In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity.

It's a very thoughtful treatment of a difficult but fascinating topic, and it's an amazingly great read. I think my favorite chapter (partly because it's about things I know less about--inevitably I've been reading books about eugenics and heredity for nearly fifteen years now, so lots of it ends up being familiar) is the one called "Blood, Big Science, and Biochemistry," in which Kevles waves together the story of the American Society of Human Genetics, James Neel's investigation of the genetic impact of the atomic blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the discovery of the biochemistry of sickle-cell anemia. It's a thrilling story that integrates really cool technical developments--the discovery of forms of chromatography and electrophoresis that let scientists understand what was going on in blood samples--with stories about individuals and broad trends in the science of genetics (in this case, away from statistics towards biochemistry and the examination and manipulation of chromosomes).

The charm of the book is that Kevles is at once an extremely authoritative scholar--this book seems to me impeccable in its historical work and its clear laying-out of arguments and sources and so forth--and a delightful narrative writer. Obviously it would not be in good taste to make certain kinds of jokes, this is a serious topic, but he manages to get across the flavor of the early twentieth-century eugenics movement with the most amazing and well-chosen semi-comic details (as when he describes a London woman, "pregnant and enterprisingly Lamarckian, [who] betook herself to plays and concerts, conversed with H. G. Wells among other writers, and in 1913 gave birth to 'Eugenette Bolce,' who was widely hailed as England's first eugenic baby"). Here's one of my favorite bits, describing a gift from Mary Harriman in the 1910s that funded scholarships for young men and women to train in the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor--it gives you a good sense of his style:

After the summer training course, the trainees, at a salary of seventy-five dollars a month, began a year's work in the field. Davenport had expected most of the field workers to be women's college graduates with some training in biology, and many did indeed come from Radcliffe, Vassar, and Wellesley, joining graduates of Harvard, Cornell, Oberlin, Johns Hopkins, and other reputable schools. Once trained, they were armed with a "Trait Book" for guidance and sent to study albinos in Massachusetts; the insane at the New Jersey State Hospital in Matawan; the feebleminded at the Skillman School, in Skillman, New Jersey; the Amish in Pennsylvania; the pedigrees of disease in the Academy of Medicine records in New York City; and juvenile delinquents at the Juvenile Psychopathic Institute of Chicago.

I've been interested for a long time in the difference between top-quality academic writing and top-quality serious non-fiction that's not limited to an academic readership. There's nothing bad about the former, in fact the book I'm finishing this summer is squarely in that genre (well, I can't guarantee the top-quality-ness, but you know what I mean): I thought about trying to write it as the other, but I realized that at the point I'm currently at (more in my intellectual life than in my career, that is) I would learn more and write something more true to what I had to say about this stuff by doing an academic book alluringly bristling with strange quotations and interesting footnotes. It will be very clearly written, I hope (the greatest compliment I got this year was on a talk that I'm afraid I delivered rather too quickly due to constraints of time--but one of my fellow panelists, a scholar whose work I greatly respect, told me that it was easy to follow because in contrast to the general run of papers which feature simple ideas masked in complex prose mine was complex ideas in simple language), but that is not the same thing as saying that it's written for a general audience. (Maybe the next one....) But really good serious non-fiction, non-fiction that operates up to the highest standards of academic research and yet also makes that leap towards broader accessibility, is one of my favorite things in the world.

I went to a funny panel once in grad school about academic publishing, it was embarrassingly full of cocky PhD students (in my experience--no offense!--the boys are mostly worse than the girls) secretly convinced that their dissertations on, oh, the economics of the sugar trade in the Caribbean 1850-1860 might somehow be discovered as a surprise bestseller! And Yale UP editor Jonathan Brent, who was one of the presenters, said something that I've always remembered. He was very nice about it, he could see that we were all starry-eyed and unrealistic, and he observed that one reason that historians are more likely to write and publish cross-over or trade books than, say, philosophers or literary critics has to do with the difference between narrative and analytic writing. Many works of academic historical scholarship are also narratives, which is more likely to make them accessible to a much greater pool of readers; an analytic book, however compelling, is unlikely to do so. He then cited an interesting category exception to this rule--books that are assigned for classes in large numbers can sell very well, let's say Raymond Williams or Roland Barthes might be a good example here--and a strikingly memorable one-off exception. The analytic-critical book that turned out to be a surprise bestseller for the press (I think he said it sold near to a hundred thousand copies, although this is at least seven or eight years ago so I may be misremembering)? Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae. (By the way, that's a wonderfully funny Wikipedia entry on her, well worth a look.) She had a kind of following already, she went out and did events in support of the book, and the editors at the press were perhaps themselves rather startled at the extent to which it took off.

The lesson of this is that we must be realistic about what we're writing! (It's roughly analogous to the starting-out novelist who needs to be sensible about whether she's writing a small-press book or a small-press-type-but-happens-to-get-a-contract-with-FSG-or-Grove book or a mass-market thriller or a category romance or a potential huge crossover detective novel. Hard to see this in our own stuff, of course, but if you read widely and think about it you start to get a feel for these things.)

I recommend two books to graduate students in the humanities and social sciences and to assistant professors who are trying to figure out what kind of book-length projects they should be (or in some cases actually are) working on. The first is the one you'd want to read if you were looking longingly at a book like this Kevles one and wondering how you might try and move in that direction yourself: it's an extremely smart guide called Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction and Get It Published (the authors are Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato) and I have loaned my copy of it to at least four or five different people over the last few years, it's that useful. (Interestingly the sample proposal at the end was for a book that's recently been published: Debby Applegate's much-praised biography of Henry Ward Beecher.)

The other is more like a starter book, and should definitely be something you look at if you're finishing your PhD or trying to turn your dissertation into a book. I'm talking about William Germano's Getting It Published (and though I haven't looked at this one, I suspect it's now been somewhat superseded by his more recent From Dissertation to Book). It's exactly tailored to the situation of recent PhDs trying to figure out how to make the work they've already done more substantively appealing to publishers and readers, and it's extremely sensible on details as well as big-picture stuff.

(In case you can't tell, I am awfully looking forward to getting back into the classroom in September, assuming I have somehow finished my book between now and then!)


  1. Oh, someone else interested in eugenics! And I thought I was just a lonely, morbid nutcase. That book looks really good. I've had my eye on "The Unfit" for a little while -- do you know it?

  2. No, I don't know it, but I've just taken a look at Amazon & it certainly sounds extremely interesting....

    I have all sorts of book recommendations vaguely related to this, but it depends what way things take you: Armand-Marie LeRoi's "Mutants" is a wonderfully good book for instance, not about eugenics but on variation and the human body; and there's obviously a lot of stuff on the "evil doctors" end of things; and then of course cloning....

  3. Wonderful post. Very much along the lines of many things I've been thinking about lately, professionally and personally... And you're the second person to rave about the Think Like Your Editor book, so I suppose I must go get it now.

  4. I'd love any recommendations, as I've not read that much. Which did you find most interesting?

  5. I agree with you on Kevles, he has written many book reviews for Nature over the years and I think an excellent scholar and writer.
    I am sure Nature has reviewed this book but the link on the search return (in itself ambiguous) is broken. So I can't send you the Nature review, but I feel confident that we did review it and that the review was positive.

    In response to AC, Benno Muller Hill and Steve Jones have both written much on the science of eugenics. As have many other people, but these two might be worth looking at for a start.

  6. Thanks, Maxine!

    One book I found very stimulating though it's provocative to the point of being slightly crack-pot-ish (in a good way, though) is Lee Silver's Remaking Eden. Also, if you've never read Huxley's "Brave New World," it's pretty great! I'm about to reread it now for the chapter I'm writing, but I reread it a couple years ago too & enjoyed it very much that time round. Fay Weldon has a fun novel called "The Cloning of Joanna May" that I also recommend highly (now we've come further away from eugenics, but still interesting....).

  7. Thank you both for the recommendations. I'm going to zip over to Amazon right now and check out those books...

  8. David Greenhouse has an article up on Slate about the argumentative stances of the historian characters in The History Boys, and he links to a previous article he's published on the site about how popular histories are framed. He makes some interesting points about crafting an episodic structure, narrating stories, footnoting, taking an oppositional stance, and publishing grand historical narratives.