Reviewing “American Grace”: it is readable!

The book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us was released this past week. In addition to being co-authored by Robert Putnam (author of well-known Bowling Alone), the study has been hailed by several sources as a (and perhaps the) comprehensive look at religion in American society.

But a feature of a positive review written by a historian in the San Francisco Chronicle struck me as intriguing:

Among the great virtues of this volume is its combination of two features that are all too rarely found in close proximity. One is a commitment to the most rigorous standards of contemporary social science, bolstered by statistical sophistication. Do you like multiple regression analysis? You’ll find lots of it here. The other feature is a commitment to get their message across to educated readers who are put off by the excessive jargon and abstraction of most sociological studies. Only such a combination could make a 673-page tome worth the attention “American Grace” deserves.

Reading between the lines, here is what is being said: sociologists are not often able to combine statistical evidence (regression analysis of survey results is the gold standard for studies like this that claim to be comprehensive looks at American society) and winsome writing. Essentially, the book is “readable.”

A few thoughts come to mind:

1. What exactly about it makes it “readable” or “understandable”?

2. When reading a book using regression analysis, how much should the “typical educated reader” know about this kind of analysis? This might say more about general statistical knowledge, even among the educated, than it does about the book.

3. This is a valid concern for a book that hopes to be read by many people – writers should always consider their audience. However, it still strikes me as a lower-level priority: isn’t the argument of the book much more important than how it was written? The style of writing can detract from the argument but what we should grapple with are Putnam and Campbell’s conclusions.

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