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Matt Stanley on Reviewing "Pop" Lit March 29, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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In response to a previous post on whether it’s worth our while to combat typical pop fallacies in scholarly reviews, I’ve asked Michigan State historian Matt Stanley (a former grad student colleague of mine at Harvard) to give us a reply regarding his recent HSNS review of four new Einstein books, which I used as an illustration. He’s generously taken the time to give us a good one. Here it is:

Before I get started, thanks to Will for starting up this blog and offering me a chance to join the conversation. I think there are two points I would like to bring up in response to Will’s thoughts on Us vs. Them.

First, the issue of whether historians should spend their time critiquing “pop historians.” I can tell you that reviewing that kind writing isn’t much fun – it can actually be kind of painful, as I hope my HSNS review made clear. But I do think we have an obligation to do so. To the vast majority of literate people out there, books like Isaacson’s are the only exposure they will have to the history of science. That means that their ideas of how science works will be shaped not by cutting-edge historiography, but by tired tropes and long-exposed myths. Presumably as scholars we have some obligation to use our knowledge to improve the general social understanding of our field, and one way to do that is to review books that will easily sell a hundred times as many copies as our monographs. It’s surely the case that it would be more useful to put such a review in the NY Times rather than in a scholarly journal, but we don’t always have the audiences we might like. So in short, I think reviewing popular books is an important obligation. This also raises the issue of whether historians should perhaps write for wider audiences – perhaps we can talk about that another day (after tenure, maybe).

Second, the issue of whether we should instead be “sharpen[ing] our abilities” by instead focusing on scholarly books. Personally, I’m not sure the purpose of writing reviews is to sharpen one’s critical abilities. That’s surely a result of review writing, but I’m skeptical that that should be the purpose. I see reviews as performing the valuable service of providing information on books that someone might not have the chance to read themselves, and possibly induce them to pick up the book or stay away from it at all costs. A secondary function, I think, is to make historiographical or substantive points regarding the book or its subject that don’t quite merit a full-length journal article on their own.

I don’t see my essay review as taking any kind of Us vs. Them perspective. On the most basic level, half of the authors I discuss are well-established professional historians (Rowe and Schulmann). On the more substantial level, I hope I made my objections to Isaacson and Neffe on well-supported points of analysis and substance, and not simply that they should stay on their side of the railroad tracks. Indeed, I would be quite embarrassed to see a review of Neffe’s book that dismissed it just based on the author’s credentials rather than its actual merits (or lack thereof). I think Us vs. Them appears quite a bit in our profession, but I usually see it go the other way – that is, historians taking flak from their colleagues for writing books aimed at popular audiences. I’m all for crossing that line in both directions, but I don’t think non-historians’ books should get a free ride from critical reviews.

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