Why I would choose to read a 700+ page book versus an 11 page summary on an important historical period

I recently read two histories of a similar time period and both texts addressed the North American aspects of the Seven Years’ War. However, the texts had very different lengths. One book was over 700 pages and included many details. The other book included a summary of the same war in 11 pages. Which was the better read?

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Much of this answer depends on what I hoped to accomplish in my reading. Months ago, I had stumbled onto the Wikipedia page for the Seven Years’ War and realized I knew relatively little about it. The North American branch of this conflict involved relatively few troops yet had very important implications for the subsequent history of the United States. I searched out some recommendations on notable academic histories that addressed this period and received a few books from my library. I wanted to know more and now I had options.

I enjoyed reading the 700+ page book. Did I need all the details in my life? Probably not, but much of what I read was fascinating and provided insights that shorter summaries could not. I am glad that I read all of this so that at least at one point in life I could say I tried to take in all of this knowledge.

The 11 page summary was also interesting and well-written. It also took much less time. I recognized the high points of the conflict from the much longer narrative. These high points made a lot more sense given all the details I had read not too long before.

In the academic world, we run into these sorts of issues all the time: how much knowledge do I need to proceed? Would a one page summary be sufficient or should I devote years to studying this? We publish different length materials, ranging from encyclopedia entries and shorter notes to longer articles and books. One cannot read and study everything so we must be judicious in what we spend our time on. Yet, the joys of diving deeply into material is one of the best parts of study and research.

Having read both texts, I am still in favor of reading the much longer text. I may go years before reading anything on the Seven Years’ War and the longer text gave me plenty to consider. I had the time to spend on it and I may not make the same decision regarding another subject area given different circumstances. But, for two weeks this summer, reading a lot about the Seven Years’ War was a good decision.

The evangelical books on suburban life recommended for devotional reasons

Following up on Friday’s post on a recent publication titled “Faith in the Suburbs: Evangelical books about Suburban Life” and yesterday’s recommendation of The Suburban Christian for a more scholarly approach among evangelical books that discuss suburban life, today I highlight two books that stand out in taking a more devotional approach to evangelical life in the suburbs.

As I noted yesterday, the books I examined all had an interest in helping Christians grow in faith and practice and live in the suburbs at the same time. Both Dave Goetz’s 2006 book Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul and Ashley Hales’ 2018 book Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much stand out for their mix of advice for and insight into the everyday suburban religious life and the spiritual practices they recommend for a changed suburban life.

They approach these practices in slightly different ways. In the opening chapter, Goetz sets up the problem:

I think my suburb, as safe and religious coated as it is, keeps me from Jesus. Or at least, my suburb (and the religion of the suburbs) obscures the real Jesus. The living patterns of the good life affect me more than I know. Yet the same environmental factors that numb me to the things of God also hold out great promise. I don’t need to the escape the suburbs. I need to find Jesus here. (5)

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Subsequent chapters then each start with a listed environmental toxin of suburban life and then a practice in response. The material for each chapter then discusses these two features. Pursuing these practices will help readers find the thicker life he describes this way:

This much thicker world is a world in which I am live to God and alive to others, a world in which what I don’t yet own defines me. (13)

Hales puts the problem this way:

More than 50 percent of Americans live in suburbs, and many of them desire to live a Christian life. Yet often the suburbs are ignored (“Your place doesn’t matter, we’re all going to heaven anyway”), denigrated and demeaned (“You’re selfish if you live in a suburb; you only care about your own safety and advancement”), or seen as a cop-out to a faithful Christian life (“If you really loved God, you’d move to Africa or work in an impoverished area”). From books to Hollywood jokes, the suburbs aren’t supposed to be good for our souls. Even David Goetz’s popular book, Death by Suburb, though helpful, presumes suburban life is toxic for your soul – as if suburbia were uniquely broken by the weight of sin. The suburbs – like any place – exhibit both the goodness of God’s creative acts (in desiring to foster community, beauty, rest, hospitality, family) and sin (in focusing on image, materialism, and individualism to the exclusion of others). We cannot be quick to dismiss the suburbs out of hand. (8)

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The practices and counterliturgies Hales recommends would help Christians see suburbs and their role their differently:

This book is about coming home, about finding ourselves in the story of God and rooting ourselves in our places. It’s a bold look at the culture of affluence as expressed in suburban life. My hope is that is challenges your idea of belonging and also shows you a more beautiful story to root yourself in. As individuals, families, and churches commit to love and sacrifice for our neighborhood and subdivisions, we will find our place. (14-15)

If an individual, church group, or religious organization wants to consider evangelical life in the suburbs, both of these books could be a good starting point for conversation and action.

The evangelical book on suburban life recommended for scholarly reasons

Following up on yesterday’s post about a recent publication titled “Faith in the Suburbs,”” I wanted to highlight the one text that best connects readers to scholarly discussions of and existing research on suburbs.

One of the features of the books I examined is their focus on everyday Christian/evangelical life. On the whole, these texts are part of a larger category of books where evangelicals wrestle with current social issues and consider Christian approaches. Across the books, the goal is help readers build their faith and draw on evangelical and biblical resources.

Al Hsu’s 2006 book The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty is the best on drawing on existing historical, theological, and other scholarly research on suburbs and places. There is a full chapter on suburban development that draws on a number of well-cited texts about how the American suburbs came to be. While some books I studied cited no scholarly works, Hsu cites numerous works and the discussion and footnotes could provide a good starting point for a reader who wants to engage the decades-long scholarly discussion.

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The engagement with a wider academic conversation may be connected to other unique features of Hsu’s text. He considers how Christians could engage race and social class in the suburbs. In the final chapter when discussing solutions, Hsu connects religious activity and structural activity:

While we must never neglect the significant of evangelizing individuals, equally important is transforming societal, organizational and municipal structures. (188)

Hsu also helps individual Christians think about their beliefs and practices in the suburbs. For example:

Behind the readers’ comments is a tacit assumption that the Christian life simply can’t be lived in certain environments…But for Christians, nothing is beyond redemption. (13)

For individuals, church groups, and religious organizations looking for an evangelical book addressing suburban life with a more scholarly angle, this would be a good starting point.

Selling the perfect bookshelf to Zoom users

With all the videoconferencing taking place during COVID-19, the business of selling books to people for their backdrop picked up:

Books by the Foot, a service run by the Maryland-based bookseller Wonder Book, has become a go-to curator of Washington bookshelves, offering precisely what its name sounds like it does. As retro as a shelf of books might seem in an era of flat-panel screens, Books by the Foot has thrived through Democratic and Republican administrations, including that of the book-averse Donald Trump. And this year, the company has seen a twist: When the coronavirus pandemic arrived, Books by the Foot had to adapt to a downturn in office- and hotel-decor business—and an uptick in home-office Zoom backdrops for the talking-head class.

The Wonder Book staff doesn’t pry too much into which objective a particular client is after. If an order were to come in for, say, 12 feet of books about politics, specifically with a progressive or liberal tilt—as one did in August—Wonder Book’s manager, Jessica Bowman, would simply send one of her more politics-savvy staffers to the enormous box labeled “Politically Incorrect” (the name of Books by the Foot’s politics package) to select about 120 books by authors like Hillary Clinton, Bill Maher, Al Franken and Bob Woodward. The books would then be “staged,” or arranged with the same care a florist might extend to a bouquet of flowers, on a library cart; double-checked by a second staffer; and then shipped off to the residence or commercial space where they would eventually be shelved and displayed (or shelved and taken down to read)…

Located in Frederick, Wonder Book’s 3-acre warehouse full of 4 million books is a short jaunt from the nation‘s capital. While the company ships nationally, it gets a hefty portion of its business from major cities including Washington. And, over the past two decades, Books by the Foot’s books-as-decor designs have become a fixture in the world of American politics, filling local appetite for books as status symbols, objects with the power to silently confer taste, intellect, sophistication or ideology upon the places they’re displayed or the people who own them…

Another force at work, however, was the rise of the well-stocked shelf as a coveted home-office prop. When workplaces went remote and suddenly Zoom allowed co-workers new glimpses into one another’s homes, what New York Times writer Amanda Hess dubbed the “credibility bookcase” became the hot-ticket item. (“For a certain class of people, the home must function not only as a pandemic hunkering nest but also be optimized for presentation to the outside world,” she wrote.) And while Roberts makes an effort not to infer too much about his clients or ask too many questions about their intent, he did notice a very telling micro-trend in orders he was getting from all across the United States.

A lot could be said about books as status symbols. In certain circles, books imply a certain level of education, curiosity, and acquisition. Books and refinement and culture go together. Just having the books present is meant to impress in the same way a flashy car might be impressive driving down the street or the same way a McMansion looks to impress people passing by with its facade.

Think about the supply side of these books. There are companies that can acquire many many titles for relatively cheap. They can store all of these books until someone is willing to pay a decent price to put those books in their spaces. These books with all of their accumulated knowledge and status are simply another commodity that can be moved around to boost someone’s status when needed. And when COVID-19 ends or video conferencing slows down? The books can be discarded until needed again as a status symbol.

An interesting contrast would be between certain commentators and networks. I have seen at least a few bookshelves behind sports commentators. They often have a few books but also more prominently features sports equipment or trophies. The bookshelf is not just about education; the books are mixed with symbols of achievement or fandom.

Without asking how the books in the backdrop were acquired, viewers or other participants might ask about favorite books or how many books have been read. I have been asked this multiple times in the last few years, whether with bookshelves in my office and at home. It could be interpreted as an invasive question – taken as a challenge about whether the books are just there as status symbols – or provide an opening for the person to explain more about their reading (and the connected education and status) and/or share about books that really matter to them.

Anticipating reading a heavy, expensive, detailed book

Having recently heard of Recording the Beatles: The Studio Equipment and Techniques Used to Create Their Classic Albums, I am now looking forward to reading the book.

Several thoughts on the book that at this point I have only flipped through quickly:

  1. Even working in academia where I am used to tracking down books and sources, this is an unusual book in several ways. It is heavy. It is an odd size. And it is expensive: copies on Amazon go for $600+.
  2. While the book is unusual, it has an impressive level of detail. Much has been written about the Beatles and I have read a number of these books. But, how many people are interested in the recording techniques and extensive information on equipment and actions in the studio? This appears to be a great source for those interested.
  3. This is the sort of text that is difficult to reproduce digitally. Sure, it could all be hyperlinked and the graphics could be made interactive or could be videos. But, to have a comprehensive source like this to hold and flip over provides a particular kind of experience.
  4. At the same time, popular and scholarly writing on The Beatles regularly cites their studio techniques as part of their magic. Not only did they write great songs and play together well; they harnessed and challenged the existing technology available at the time to do big things. While the technology and options may seem quaint now, it was a factor in their success.
  5. One of the enduring questions about The Beatles and other successful artists is what exactly came together in their work. Technology played a role but I assume this book will also offer insights into the human interactions and efforts. As many have noted, The Beatles were more than just four group members: there was a team around them that both helped and challenged them. Technology may have enabled or constrained but the group dynamics matter.

Non-fiction books can have limited fact-checking, no peer review

An example of a significant misinterpretation of survey data in a recent book provides a reminder of about reading “facts”:

There are a few major lessons here. The first is that books are not subject to peer review, and in the typical case not even subject to fact-checking by the publishers — often they put responsibility for fact-checking on the authors, who may vary in how thoroughly they conduct such fact-checks and in whether they have the expertise to notice errors in interpreting studies, like Wolf’s or Dolan’s.

The second, Kimbrough told me, is that in many respects we got lucky in the Dolan case. Dolan was using publicly available data, which meant that when Kimbrough doubted his claims, he could look up the original data himself and check Dolan’s work. “It’s good this work was done using public data,” Kimbrough told me, “so I’m able to go pull the data and look into it and see, ‘Oh, this is clearly wrong.’”…

Book-publishing culture similarly needs to change to address that first problem. Books often go to print with less fact-checking than an average Vox article, and at hundreds of pages long, that almost always means several errors. The recent high-profile cases where these errors have been serious, embarrassing, and highly public might create enough pressure to finally change that.

In the meantime, don’t trust shocking claims with a single source, even if they’re from a well-regarded expert. It’s all too easy to misread a study, and all too easy for those errors to make it all the way to print.

These are good steps, particularly the last paragraph above: shocking or even surprising statistics are worth checking against the data or against other sources to verify. After all, it is not that hard for a mutant statistic to spread.

Unfortunately, correctly interpreting data continues to get pushed down the chain to readers and consumers. When I read articles or books in 2019, I need to be fairly skeptical of what I am reading. This is hard to do with (1) the glut of information we all face (so many sources!) and (2) needing to know how to be skeptical of information. This is why it is easy to fall into filtering sources of information into camps of sources we trust versus ones we do not. At the same time, knowing how statistics and data works goes a long way in questioning information. In the main example in the story above, the interpretation issue came down to how the survey questions were asked. An average consumer of the book may have little idea to question the survey data collection process, let alone the veracity of the claim. It took an academic who works with the same dataset to question the interpretation.

To do this individual fact-checking better (and to do it better at a structural level before books are published), we need to combat innumeracy. Readers need to be able to understand data: how it is collected, how it is interpreted, and how it ends up in print or in the public arena. This usually does not require a deep knowledge of particular methods but it does require some familiarity with how data becomes data. Similarly, being cynical about all data and statistics is not the answer; readers need to know when data is good enough.

Finding humor in the interior design in great literature

Great books often feature interesting homes and places. One English professor set out to have some fun with the interior design of these spaces:

The book started with Jane Eyre. I was watching a film adaptation one night and thinking about the particular house that was used as Thornfield Hall in that movie, and also my love of home design sites, like Apartment Therapy, which had actually done a house tour of my house when I moved into it five years ago. I thought it would be funny to think about Jane Eyre giving a kind of similar tour of Thornfield Hall, and mapping that whole narrative of “what your house means to you” onto this really Gothic, terrible space. I decided to keep going, thinking about which houses in literature are my favorites, and it turned into a regular column, at [now defunct feminist website] the Toast.

There’s something so funny about trying to fit these disturbing literary houses into the cookie-cutter language of interior design, and ending up with, say, “Jay Gatsby’s Desperately Sad McMansion of Unfulfilled Dreams.” But it also reminds us that in literature as in life, people and their homes are so connected.

The satire about decorating is very warm satire. I really loved doing a house tour, and the whole idea of that, people creating these personally significant spaces and sharing them with one another, with an audience. But it’s always fun to have that dual vision, where you can be a part of something but at the same time stand a little bit outside it and think about what might be funny about yourself and your own domestic tendencies. Since I’m an English professor, the idea of thinking about home in books and in life has always been related. A lot of the models of how I think about my house are literary models—hopefully not Thornfield Hall, though…

The column was initially called “Great House Therapy,” and the idea was to explicitly pair the Apartment Therapy-style house tour with the idea of the great house in literature, these big estates owned by landed gentry. But when I developed it into a book, I wanted all sorts of different literary houses, and apartments, and, for instance, King Lear’s hovel. That play is so much about hospitality, how Lear violates the hospitality of his daughters and is cast out into the storm. I wanted some of the interiors to be totally terrible, and to find the humor in that, so I included places like Raskolnikov’s lair in Crime and Punishment, and the room in The Yellow Wallpaper, a place where the narrator is trapped, and I imagined Jane Eyre talking to Becky Sharp, from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, about their dismal governess’s rooms.

Considering the importance of places for humans, it is little surprise that many creative works – books, films, TV shows – involve places that are important for the characters. Yet, at the same time, it can often feel like the places are simply backgrounds for what is happening in the dialogue between character or in the character development. In other words, if you could easily transport the characters and plot to another similar location and little would change, perhaps the depicted places are not really that meaningful.

And given some of the discussion above, it would be interesting to consider the literary (and additional outlets) depictions of McMansions. How exactly will Gone Girl‘s depiction of lonely suburban McMansions hold up? Or, how about creative works that use McMansions like Gothic homes of the past? The discussions of granite countertops and stainless steel appliances may be perfect for spoofing in the future.

Why do children’s books spend so much time on infrastructure and construction yet there is little formal instruction on these topics later?

Yesterday, I walked to the nearest bank and watched some construction going on. The work appeared to involve digging underneath the side of a street, possibly to deal with a pipe or some kind of wire. I was struck that while many neighbors or drivers would find such a sight a nuisance, many kids would be fascinated.

Plenty of books for children involve infrastructure and construction. These books discuss vehicles, what is underground, and how items get from one place to another. The emphasis on big machines doing physical work and the mobility of it all seems attractive to kids. (I would guess much of this attraction is due to socialization.) But, if I think back to my schooling, we spend little time analyzing and discussing these basic systems that are essential to all of our lives: electricity and electrical lines, plumbing and sewers, Internet cables, roads and highways, pipelines, gas lines, railroads, trucking, waterways, airplanes and airports, and other crucial pieces of infrastructure. Why?

In many ways, it would not be hard to incorporate these topics into multiple subjects. The first example that came to mind would be a unit about railroads. These are essential for moving goods long distances. Various subjects could tackle aspects of the railroad. Plenty of history and geography to note. The natural sciences could discuss steam engines, coal, diesel engines, and how such heavy objects move. The humanities have a wealth of stories, poems, songs, and other works that involve railroads. Math could involve analyzing timetables or schedules. Language arts could involve writing promotional materials for railroads or describing particular historical events involving trains.

Without more formal instruction on infrastructure, American adults may not (1) think often about how we all need to contribute to maintaining and building infrastructure and (2) have a good understanding of how it all works (not just the infrastructure itself but also related industries and aspects of social life). In other words, a lack of attention paid to infrastructure in school and learning may just contribute to a public that does not want to address the infrastructure issues facing the nation today.

Why Google’s plan to scan every book in the world was halted

Google had plans to scan every book but the project hit some legal bumps along the way and now the company has “a database containing 25-million books and nobody is allowed to read them”:

Google thought that creating a card catalog was protected by “fair use,” the same doctrine of copyright law that lets a scholar excerpt someone’s else’s work in order to talk about it. “A key part of the line between what’s fair use and what’s not is transformation,” Google’s lawyer, David Drummond, has said. “Yes, we’re making a copy when we digitize. But surely the ability to find something because a term appears in a book is not the same thing as reading the book. That’s why Google Books is a different product from the book itself.”…

It’s been estimated that about half the books published between 1923 and 1963 are actually in the public domain—it’s just that no one knows which half. Copyrights back then had to be renewed, and often the rightsholder wouldn’t bother filing the paperwork; if they did, the paperwork could be lost. The cost of figuring out who owns the rights to a given book can end up being greater than the market value of the book itself. “To have people go and research each one of these titles,” Sarnoff said to me, “It’s not just Sisyphean—it’s an impossible task economically.” Most out-of-print books are therefore locked up, if not by copyright then by inconvenience…

What became known as the Google Books Search Amended Settlement Agreement came to 165 pages and more than a dozen appendices. It took two and a half years to hammer out the details. Sarnoff described the negotiations as “four-dimensional chess” between the authors, publishers, libraries, and Google. “Everyone involved,” he said to me, “and I mean everyone—on all sides of this issue—thought that if we were going to get this through, this would be the single most important thing they did in their careers.” Ultimately the deal put Google on the hook for about $125 million, including a one-time $45 million payout to the copyright holders of books it had scanned—something like $60 per book—along with $15.5 million in legal fees to the publishers, $30 million to the authors, and $34.5 million toward creating the Registry….

This objection got the attention of the Justice Department, in particular the Antitrust division, who began investigating the settlement. In a statement filed with the court, the DOJ argued that the settlement would give Google a de facto monopoly on out-of-print books. That’s because for Google’s competitors to get the same rights to those books, they’d basically have to go through the exact same bizarre process: scan them en masse, get sued in a class action, and try to settle. “Even if there were reason to think history could repeat itself in this unlikely fashion,” the DOJ wrote, “it would scarcely be sound policy to encourage deliberate copyright violations and additional litigation.”

Out-of-print books with uncertain copyright status scuttle what could be one of the great treasure troves of information? This suggests we still have a ways to go until we have legal structures that can deal with the information-rich and easily accessible online realm. If a deal could eventually be worked out for books, what about older music, art, and other cultural works?

A related thought: having all those books available might indeed change the academic enterprise in several ways. First, we could easily access more sources of data. Second, we could potentially cite many more sources.

Books that influenced sociologists to pursue sociology

Sociologist and psychologist Sherry Turkle discusses some of the books that most influenced her:

BOOKS: Which books had the biggest effect on you?

TURKLE: Jean Piaget’s “The Child’s Conception of the World,” Freud’s “The Uncanny,” Claude Levi-Strauss’s “The Savage Mind.” Getting into those books got me into this notion that we love the objects we think with, and we think with the objects we love. That became my life’s work.

BOOKS: Any other pivotal book?

TURKLE: I think the most influential book for me was “The Lonely Crowd” by David Riesman. I read that in high school. I said to myself I want to be the sort of person who could write a book like that. So I decided to study sociology and psychology. In fact, he became my mentor.

Given that Turkle was trained as a sociologist and psychologist (she did both together: “Professor Turkle received a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University and is a licensed clinical psychologist.”), these books don’t look so surprising. But, would we have known this when Turkle was in college or younger? Or were these the books that she found at an academic level that then influenced her later research and writing? It would be interesting to see: (1) what books a number of other sociologists would cite as influential and (2) whether these texts line up with the books and articles cited the most in the discipline.

Additionally, The Lonely Crowd has had an outsized effect on studying the American suburbs. I admit that I have not read the whole thing though it sits on the shelf in my office. Its claims about conformity have been widely echoed by critics of the suburbs – while cities are often presented as the bastions of individuality and authenticity – even as the data behind the claims was somewhat thin.