Not many people…


English: W. Somerset Maugham British writer

English: W. Somerset Maugham British writer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not many people know how much bitterness, how much bargaining, how much intrigue goes into the awarding of a prize or the election of a candidate.

From the Preface of W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook

This is true regardless of profession, and it shows up even among Christian leaders. Perhaps no one is above campaigning on his own behalf for something he thinks he deserves from his constituency or the general public. This includes authors, public speakers, and university professors.

Face the Fear—Peter Bregman’s Advice for Procrastinators


“Failure in a long-term project isn’t just a work issue; it’s an identity issue. Is it any wonder that we procrastinate?” This simple insight lies at the heart of Peter Bregman’s excellent counsel for those who have trouble getting started on BIG PROJECTS. You know who you are:

  • first-time book authors
  • second-, third-, and fourth-time book authors
  • PhD candidates confronted with writing a dissertation
  • public speakers
  • athletes
  • those who aspire to developing a new hobby
  • parents
  • generals of armies
  • book keepers
  • bloggers

Yep. Pretty much anyone who ever wanted to do something of value.

Bregman recognizes that the salami technique is useful, but he notes that it doesn’t deal directly with our “issues” as procrastinators on large undertakings. (The salami technique consists in slicing the biggies into smaller, more digestible sizes, then acting on each, one at a time, gradually making forward progress until the end is in sight.)

No need to repeat what Bregman says. Just visit his post for the Harvard Business Review here.

Why Are Academics Such Bad Writers?


Medieval illustration of a Christian scribe wr...

Image via Wikipedia

“Our academic journals radiate bad writing—I store my journals on the shelf farthest from my desk to avoid the fallout.” This is Paul Silvia’s take on the modus operandi of far too many academic writers.

What is “bad writing”?

It’s writing that …

  • uses impenetrable English;
  • revels in ambiguity;
  • requires backtracking just to follow the point;
  • ensures a slight readership by the specialization of its vocabulary;
  • deploys arcane symbolism that intimidates readers;
  • can be recommended as a soporific, even to specialists in the same field.

That’s my list.

Paul Silvia believes there are three reasons for bad writing among academic authors:

1. They want to sound smart.
2. They never learned how to write well.
3. They don’t spend enough time writing.

My list would be longer and more focused:

1. They don’t know good writing from bad writing. If all they read are journal articles and academic monographs, then they’re on a steady diet of poor writing. The best writing is nourished by close reading of the best of writers, both inside and outside one’s discipline.

2. They don’t believe that good writing matters. “Academic writing gets published without concern for stylistic quality, so why bother?” There are two reasons to bother. First, the academic writer should pursue excellence, rather than what is commonplace. Second, the best writing attracts more readers. The ratio of readers to authors of journal essays is appalling. Monographs are pricey because the expected readership is low. But the best writers within a discipline, because they reward their readers with more than originality of content, are read by more people, and they are read more faithfully by people who like their writing.

3. They believe that good writing will reduce their publication prospects. More academic authors are looking for opportunities to publish in the broader market. Their prospects are dim if they can’t write with style. Those who are content to write as academics for academics should understand that quality of writing that does not compromise quality of scholarship has a better chance of publication. And for those who write for interdisciplinary journals, the need is even greater, since non-specialists will need more help in their reading and more reasons to keep on reading.

4. They confuse good writing with casual writing, or popularizing. Writing with style means one thing when writing for peers, and something else when writing to inform or persuade Joe Six-Pack. A good writer understands this and adjusts her style accordingly.

5. They don’t realize that good writing can be learned. I have three suggestions for those who wish to improve their writing style.

First, read others who write with style. Observe their practices. Notice how they employ metaphors and similes. Look for sharp and arresting turns of phrase. Study transitions from paragraph to paragraph and from section to section. Look for patterns that explain their capacity to sustain interest. Think of this as a component in the research you do for your writing projects.

Second, spend time in carefully-selected books that point the way to improved style. Books of this kind should practice what they preach. Here are a few that I recommend:

Third, write more—with deliberate attention to style. Be patient with the process. Don’t expect too much too soon. Write a little everyday.

6. They’re impatient in their writing. Writing well, with style, takes more time and effort. Many writers simply don’t want to spend the time. They’re undisciplined writers who fancy themselves sufficiently productive simply because they have countless publications to their credit.

7. They think that to be a good writer you have to be a perfectionist. Not true. What you have to be is patient, persistent, and prioritized. Only the writer with meager styling skills believes that perfectionism is required. But a practiced writer, who habitually attends to matters of style, comes to write more naturally and comfortably. I venture to say that the best stylists have the easiest time of it and have the most fun doing it.

Source:

More good reading about bad writing:

Doug’s related posts:

Other:

Thought for the Day—January 3, 2010


“After 20 years, I’m still getting paid to learn how to read, write, teach, and do philosophy.”

—RDG

Writing Tips: The Moleskine Method, Part 2


In the previous entry, I introduced the Moleskine, describing its features and plugging it to writers who are on the go or need help with organization. In this entry I explain why I think writers should get comfortable with writing in longhand—a skill that’s required if you’re to make use of what I will now call “The Moleskine method.” Read more of this post

The Stimulus of Teaching


karl-barth_with-pipeWhy did Karl Barth’s productivity as a writing scholar diminish following his retirement from teaching? Some say it’s because the pressure to produce had run out [see here].

What T. H. L. Parker wrote is that Barth “lost the stimulus provided by the need to give lectures.” The key word here is “stimulus,” not “pressure.” Teaching is the ideal stimulus for scholars who write, especially if they teach graduate courses to gifted students. The stimulus of teaching can be likened to the frequent re-lighting of tobacco in a well-used pipe.

Bearing Books from New England


A week ago I returned from a New England holiday with my family. We journeyed to Maine and New Hampshire in quest of respite from the cacophony of California. We found it. Harbor views, the Maine woods, marine vessels, lobsters, crisp air, and fall leaves.

And I found bookshops—with mountains of second-hand books—ranging from the maximally disheveled to the customary semi-organized to the immaculate (for example, The Old Professor’s Bookshop in Camden, ME). Read more of this post

Teach Yourself Epistemology


Epistemology is the branch of philosophy devoted especially to study of the concepts of knowledge and justified belief. The name for this discipline, epistemology, comes from the Greek word episteme, signifying “knowledge.” This is why epistemology is sometimes called “the theory of knowledge.” Unfortunately, this designation leads to a truncated view of a complex subject matter ranging over a wide variety of issues having to do with the status of belief.

The study of epistemology is notoriously difficult. It is also difficult to teach. Most university professors in the Anglo-American analytic tradition present the subject as a series of problem-solving ventures. The most persistent theories addressing these problems are presented and compared. Sometimes the teacher favors a general approach in epistemology and gives special attention to explaining and defending that approach and spelling out its implications.

One of the great problems of epistemology is how to think about the subject matter. This is the most fundamental problem for the enterprise of epistemology (which I distinguish from the enterprise of knowing and responsible believing). And yet this problem is often passed over, not only in the classroom, but by epistemologists in their own systematic work.

In my view, this places the student at risk. The student new to epistemology is liable to learn epistemology second-hand, taking as given the various problems and their proposed solutions, arranged in whatever order suits the professor or textbook writer. One very common approach is to begin with the threat of skepticism, which hangs as an ominous spectre over the whole enterprise—and is perhaps never completely exorcised.

A proper approach to “doing epistemology” would have to be delineated with great care and in more space than I have here. But there is a sense in which the self-educated have an advantage when coming to this subject matter. They are more likely to embark upon the enterprise of epistemology with that sense of wonder that is characteristically Aristotelian. In this case, the wonder is that we are capable of knowing so many things in such diverse areas of investigation, and that we move confidently through the world believing much that we do not know or would claim to know.

Still, the student needs a guide to such a complex subject. And while no text can serve in place of careful reflection on aspects of knowing and believing as they present themselves, there are a few very good books to guide the student and prompt examination of long-standing issues in epistemology.

In my own teaching, I have favored three books on the subject:

These books complement each other nicely. The book by Robert Audi will require a tutor for most who are new to the subject. It is rich and comprehensive, and, most important, very sensible about the topics it addresses. Better than any other book I know of, this book presents the subject in a natural order that is conducive to proper progress through to thorny issues it addresses.

To anchor a course in epistemology, I’ve found that the books by Feldman and Bon Jour complement each other neatly. They are concise and readable surveys of major topics. Laurence Bon Jour adopts a method of presentation that he explains clearly at the outset. While I think the method he adopts is unfortunate, it does give readers a sense of the rootedness of trends in contemporary epistemology in the influential work of the great 17th-century philosopher René Descartes. Of special value is Bon Jour’s treatment of the contest between foundationalists and coherentists in epistemology. A convert from coherentism to foundationalism, Bon Jour excels in his exposition of this debate; yet he is also realistic about the persistent philosophical challenges raised by foundationalism.

Richard Feldman demonstrates the exacting technique of analytic philosophy in a way that is accessible and interesting to newcomers. His book is a pleasure to recommend for that reason alone. But it is strong in many other respects. Feldman selects only the most fundamental issues in epistemology, and his book is a natural choice for someone with my anti-skeptical predilections for foundationalism and internalism in epistemology. His juxtaposition of evidentialism on the one hand and internalism and externalism on the other hand is initially puzzling. The presentation of evidentialism is a model of exposition at the introductory level.

Neither Feldman nor Bon Jour does justice to the problems associated with sensory perception. This large area of study in epistemology is set aside by Feldman, perhaps in the interests of conserving space. I think the decision to postpone consideration of the theory of perception can be defended. Feldman simply ignores the topic. Bon Jour, on the other hand, takes pains to explore the theory of perception. He defends a position called indirect or representative realism. As a direct realist, I believe this is a mistake. The presentation is well-organized and focused. And, in my judgment, Bon Jour’s development and defense of indirect realism creates opportunities to indicate significant problems for his position, which is part of any thorough defense of direct realism.

Several other books make useful companions to the ones I’ve recommended above:

The student also needs a collection, or anthology, of readings in epistemology. The best anthologies include selections from influential thinkers going back to Plato, as well as seminal essays by more recent philosophers. Among the best are:

Epistemology, like all professional philosophy, is “trendy.” The serious student of the discipline must understand these trends, even at the risk of being misled about their importance or being distracted from the real business of epistemology. The books I’ve described and recommended here contribute greatly to that task.

Postscript

While I strongly recommend the books by Rober Audi, Richard Feldman, and Laurence Bon Jour as places to begin the systematic study of contemporary analytic epistemology, several other introductory texts make excellent ancillary reading:

A Plan for the Study of Epistemology

  1. Read the three introductory texts recommended at the beginning, by Robert Audi, Richard Feldman, and Bon Jour. Sketch a plan to read them simultaneously, following the topical sequence in Audi.
  2. Read a sample of classic and contemporary essays from one of the anthologies listed above. Read according to interest and accessibility and note those authors who are mentioned in Audi, Feldman, and Bon Jour. Follow the order of coverage by topic in your reading of Audi and the others.
  3. Use Jonathan Dancy’s Companion to Epistemology as a quick reference on sundry topics in epistemology.
  4. Consult the other companion volumes for more detail and discussion.
  5. Survey several other introductions listed in the Postscript above. Especially deserving of careful study are Chisholm, Lehrer, and Pollock.
  6. Begin reading on topics of special interest to you, in books and essays that focus especially on those topics.
  7. Think about issues in meta-epistemology, or the study of the proper study of epistemology. On this topic I especially recommend Chisholm, Theory of Knowledge (already listed) and his essay on “The Problem of the Criterion,” George Chatalian, Epistemology and Skepticism: An Enquiry into the Nature of Epistemology, and P. Coffey, Epistemology, or the Theory of Knowledge (1917).
  8. For a realist approach to epistemology, I suggest reading seminal essays by the so-called “New Realists” in 20-century American philosophy.

Pursuit of a PhD—Does It Make Sense?


Theologian John Stackhouse offers sobering but sane advice to those “Thinking about a PhD.” Over 100 of my past students have gone on to do PhD research, most of them in philosophy. And every year a new crop comes along with the same questions: Should I pursue a PhD? What does it take? How’s the academic job market? Thank you, John, for providing a resource where these students can make sense of the challenges.

Recommended Reading for Doing Apologetics in Your Home


My lecture on “Apologetics in Your Home” has been popular at conferences. During this presentation, I recommend the following books to parents:

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) is best known as a great hymn writer. But his two books contain much timeless advice for the education of children in piety and critical thinking.

J. Budziszewski is a Christian author and professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas. He converted from Marxism to Christianity and has written these two books to guide Christian university students through the thickets of their “higher” educational experience.

American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) was a leading figure in the pragmatist movement in philosophy, and is well-known for his work on the philosophy of education. If used with caution, parents will find much wisdom in his book on How We Think.

Three books are listed here for the exceptional value they offer in areas related to logic and critical thinking. I recommend beginning with D. J. McInerny for an overview of issues related to the nature of truth, evidence, logic, and good judgment. The book by Bowell and Kemp is an excellent textbook—the best of breed, in my opinion. Parents should learn this material early, and lead their children through a close study of its principles before graduation from high school. The book by C. Allen and M. Hand is a useful reference work.

The book by Norman Geisler and David Geisler explains the challenges of relativism and postmodernism and offers practical advice for combining critical thinking with conversational skill in dialogue with nonbelievers.

Here are two additional books to consider: How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler, and Study Is Hard Work, by William Howard Armstrong.

Finally, for general wisdom on the cultivation of the mind, I highly recommend the classic by A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life.

Michael Dirda on “The Knowledge Most Worth Having”


My education in the value of the personal essay probably began in a time and space I don’t recall. But I was compelled to appreciate this specialized form of literature most memorably during my reading of Philip Lopate’s collection The Art of the Personal Essay. The enthusiasm inspired by his anthology resulted in a welcome appetite for more of the same. Lopate’s genius for selecting the best of the breed was proven by the difficulty I experienced during my search for collections of comparable value. The annual publication of books in The Best American Essays series, edited by Robert Atwan, sometimes approximates the Lopate standard. And there are other worthy collections. Thankfully, my quest for the best has put me in touch with individual authors, contemporary essayists of the first rank, whose writing is consistently creative, wise, and ennobling.

My favorite contemporary essayists include Michael Dirda, Joseph Epstein, John Updike, and many others. This post loiters in one section of one essay from Michael dirdabook-by-bookDirda’s book Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life. The essay is titled “The Pleasures of Learning,” and the section I’ve isolated for consideration here is called “The Knowledge Most Worth Having.” This section consists of seven sentences, followed by a list of sixteen items, and a concluding sentence that reads:

Know these well, and nearly all of world literature will be an open book to you.

Clearly, Dirda’s reference to “the knowledge most worth having” is circumscribed by a specific purpose. He doesn’t mean to catalog all that it is most important to know. More precisely, he asks, “What should a person know of the world’s literature?” This question presupposes that some works are more worthy of our time and meditation than others, and that if we are to have a “structured reading program” we must have a criterion for determining which works are most deserving. Dirda gives us a criterion and then “a roughly chronological short  list of those that the diligent might read in a year or two.” Both the criterion and the list are interesting.

Dirda’s criterion—the test he uses in deciding which authors and which works are most rewarding for the reader who would attain a knowledge of the world’s literature—is simple. Devote yourself to those works “that later authors regularly build on, allude to, work against.”  Dirda does not elaborate on the principle, except to bestow a name on works that meet this condition; they are “the great patterning works.”

For further insight into the principle, we might consider Dirda’s list. He does not claim that it’s exhaustive. Actually, he implies that it is not. It’s a place to begin. Still, it’s a comfort to hear that “there aren’t many of these key books,” and it’s enticing to be told that “they aren’t all obvious classics.” One might spend a year or two in the company of these books, and then move on to others.

Before I reveal the list, I want to ask, again, what is the point of the list? It is to commend works with the potential to crack open the world of great literature. These works have this power because other authors have built on them, alluded to them, and worked against them. They are, in other words, touchstones for so much great literature that our capacity to appreciate and know the greatness of other works is unlocked by our acquaintance with these.

Now to the list. It is no surprise that it begins with

  • The Bible (Old and New Testaments)

Dirda recommends the Authorized, or King James, Version because it’s “the one that has most influenced the diction and imagery of English prose.” As a kid, I attended a Baptist Sunday School that used the King James Bible in Bible lessons, Scripture memory, and “sword drills.” (Incidentally, I never heard anyone seriously proffer a defense of the KJV on the grounds that “if it was good enough for Saint Paul, it’s good enough for me.” My Sunday school teachers were far more sophisticated than that.) In the third grade, taught by my mother, we children were awarded Bibles of our own—the King James Version, of course. Shortly after that, the production of new English translations began in earnest, and today the original KJV of 1611 is little known, even by those who know the Bible. I’m a proponent of the multiple versions doctrine, that individual versions or translations have their distinctive virtues, and that more than one should be consulted in the serious study of the Bible. But Dirda is hardly alone in proclaiming the incomparable linguistic beauty and legendary influence of the KJV, and I do not disagree. (For those interested in the translation debate, I recommend D. A. Carson’s book The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism.)

Next on the list:

The items listed by Dirda are not annotated. He doesn’t say why an entry meets the criterion he’s adopted. But some source containing the ancient myths of Greek, Roman, and Norse provenance is a no-brainer, and Bulfinch’s is the industry standard. Oddly, my copy of the generally reliable Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia (mine is the 3rd edition) has no entry for this classic collection. But then, neither does my handy paperback copy of The Reader’s Companion to World Literature. No matter. The important thing is that allusions to mythologies abound in acknowledged “great literature.” The reason for this is worthy of contemplation, but beyond the scope of this post.

Fine. If ancient mythologies must be known on the grounds that they are sources for innumerable allusions, then Homer’s influence is no less significant. The Ionian poet as a man is a mystery. Even his actual existence is doubted. The story of the composition, preservation, and function of “Homer” among the ancient Greeks is interesting in its own right, and is told with clarity uncompromised by brevity in . . . Benét’s.

We begin to suspect that the influence of the ancients runs deep in our literature. Plutarch, who lived in the first century of the Common Era, is best known as a biographer. It’s an irony of history and of literature that little is known about Plutarch himself—no biographer for the biographer. Shakespeare made use of Plutarch in two of his great plays. (Plutarch was, by the way, a master of the personal essay, and his compendium, the Moralia, has survived to please readers to this day.)

So far, Dirda’s choices are obvious. Of course Dante. But why the Inferno and not the whole the the Divine Comedy? Dirda doesn’t declare. So let’s speculate. The Inferno is the first part of the Divine Comedy. So maybe you read the first part and can’t put it down. Or you do put it down, but you’ve had enough Dante for the purposes envisioned by Dirda. Imaginative writing about hell does make for scintillating writing. For some, heaven is boring in comparison, and a proffered reason for indifference about the soul’s destiny. Strange logic.

Next in line:

I confess that I was initially surprised by this entry from the early Middle Ages. But I shouldn’t have been. This is our source for Ali Baba, Aladdin and his Magic Lamp, Sinbad the Sailor, and the phrase “Open Sesame” (which appeals to our get-rich-quick aspirations). The story of Sultan Shahriar and his clever wife Shaharazad is endlessly intriguing. But a guide to The Arabian Nights would be useful, if only because of its length.

The Middle Ages brings to mind the next fairly obvious choice:

  • Thomas Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur (tales of King Arthur and his knights)

Seeing the Monty Python movie is no substitute for reading the book. Take my word for it. But it does give a sense of the book that is somewhat surprising. (Take that with a grain of salt.) The written tales were probably composed in prison by a chap who commended the ideals  of chivalry and was notorious for violating those same ideals. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was very much taken with these tales, and transcribed them into epic poetry in his Idylls of the King. Here is a clear case where one legendary author, the Victorian poet Tennyson, is understood better against background knowledge of a 15th century author of legend.

You knew he had to show up on the list eventually, and if you’ve been following the chronology, you may have suspected his appearance at any moment—William Shakespeare.

Some of these have been quite respectably adapted for film. Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson (1990) finally made sense of “words, words, words” to me. The Orson Welles film Chimes at Midnight (1965), featuring Welles as Falstaff and John Gielgud as Henry IV, was a favorite of Welles and is generally thought to be one of his greatest movies.

There have been a dozen or more adaptations of King Lear. Most celebrated is the 1983 version starring Laurence Olivier and Dianna Rigg. Another cinematic reprise is planned. How would you like to see Naomi Watts, Keira Knightley, and Gwyneth Paltrow as the three daughters of King Lear, played by Anthony Hopkins? It’s in the works. So now is an especially auspicious time to have a read of the original King Lear.

Film or television adaptations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream were released in 1935, 1968, 1996, 1999, 2002, and 2005. Enough said.

An adaptation of The Tempest is said to be in production. It won’t be the first. The Tempest was first “screened” in 1905, in a two-and-a-half minute production. The play enjoyed a science fiction adaptation in 1956 in the film The Forbidden Planet. Other adaptations were screened in 1982, 1991, 1992 (in animation that is faithful to Shakespeare).

These works by Shakespeare are immortal. The enjoyment of a worthy film adaptation is enriched by a reading of Shakepeare himself.

Michael Dirda’s list continues. But here the entries shade into the controversial.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra introduced his dubious but endearing hero, the Man of La Mancha, in two volumes (1605 and 1616). Cervantes is credited by many as the first modern novelist. Since he died in 1616, that’s quite a distinction. The only thing controversial about including Don Quixote on Dirda’s short list is that the list is so short. Some would argue that the inclusion of Don Quixote obliges the inclusion of some other great work not on the list. But the fact is, this grand novel supremely fits Dirda’s criterion. If you disagree, you’re tilting at windmills.

A shade more controversial are

and

Defoe wrote something like 250 works. They call that prolific. Businessman, journalist, government representative, spy, possibly even double agent, but best known for his novel Robinson Crusoe, or The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner. Through this depiction of a solitary figure stranded on an island, we learn how noble men might conduct themselves under such conditions. Crusoe is an admirable figure, with lessons to teach us all. Who hasn’t imagined what it would be like, what we would do, what we would become, if we were to live in such forced seclusion?

Swift was a genius. As evidence for this, I take the liberty of quoting:

Gulliver’s Travels is perhaps the sole major work in all English literature that has continuously led a double life: it has been at once one of the most glamorous of children’s adventure stories and one of the most pungent critiques of humanity addressed to the mature imagination. This almost incredible marriage of opposites is possible because in the main the disturbing satire for adults lurks inconspicuously behind the pleasantly exciting façade of the explorer’s tale; the child can rarely see behind the façade, and the adult can never cease seeing behind it or trying to pierce through it. Further, there are times when Swift is entirely concerned with the façade—of the elaboration of the details of the story for its own sake . . . and the presence of such passages assists the young reader—or the unperceptive reader generally—to take the whole story at the simplest level of meaning. . . . Swift’s obvious enjoyment of playing the game—of unusual sizes, mysterious phenomena, and strangely shaped creatures—gives zest to his narrative without in any way impeding him when he chooses to make the game philosophical. (The Reader’s Companion to World Literature, 226)

Dirda’s inclusion of Gulliver’s Travels is vindicted by the suggestion that this satire “draws upon at least five traditions of world literature,” and the claim that “the use of fantasy for serious statement, virtually eliminated by two centuries of emphasis upon realism, is reappearing in our own day” (The Reader’s Companion to World Literature, 229).

Dirda goes on to add items undeniably suited to his premise. But these, I confess, lie at the periphery of my own reading interests:

and

Fairy tales and folk tales. Their influence has been great. My interest is negligible. For the record, the noted study of folklore and human society is James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

The final three works are perhaps the most controversial choices. Again, one could argue that some other work is more worthy of inclusion on such a list.

I believe a rationale may be built for each of these entries. Notice, Jane Austin is the only woman to be valorized on the basis of Dirda’s criterion. Some readers might object to this. I know some writers would have filled in with other great female authors just to avoid the appearance of impropriety and escape censure by enforcers of political correctness. But this is Dirda’s list.

There should be considerable pride in and no prejudice against the admission of Jane Austin to the august company of writers of seminal importance. (I hope that doesn’t sound like a bad pun or a contradiction in terms.) In 2003, the BBC sponsored a program called The Big Read, in quest of “the nation’s best-loved novel.” Pride and Prejudice was voted #2, after Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I suspect many titles voted onto the Top 100 list for The Big Read found their way there with the help of recent cinematic adaptations. But Dirda’s basis for including Jane Austin’s novel isn’t current popularity but lasting influence in the field of literature.

Lewis Carroll has to be acknowledged, even by someone without predilections for his plotting and style. Alice in Wonderland falls into that class of fairy tales and folklore that have little appeal for me.

As for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I’m completely sympathetic with ranking it high on a list of entertaining and well-crafted fiction. I would even consider bringing Holmes along for my island exile. I’m less sure of the application of Michael Dirda’s criterion for educating ourselves in preparation for mastery of the world’s great literature. Doyle’s imagination, plotting, and writing style are both creditable and inimitable. But there are others. Agatha Christie has sold better—much better, in fact. Edgar Allen Poe is the acknowledged inventor of the mystery story, and is the namesake for the Edgar Award in mystery fiction. I suppose that Doyle gets the nod because Sherlock Holmes is the paradigmatic sleuth, the one who comes to mind first when that special expertise is needed. Fair enough.

So there you have it. A criterion and a list. I’ve tried to make sense of Dirda’s choices. Using his criterion, and limited to sixteen items, I think he succeeds.

Related Posts by Doug Geivett:

Hacking the ABD Life: Part 2 — The Intellectual Virtues


The academic life has an intellectual component. Duh. But what does that mean?

It means, in part, that an exemplar of the academic life manages his or her life with intellectual virtue. An intellectual virtue is a character trait that improves the chances of believing well—of conducting inquiry in a responsible way and living responsibly on the basis of what is learned through inquiry.

I believe that all members of the human community are called to intellectual virtue, insofar as they are able. Intellectuals should be models of acting from intellectual virtue. I question whether a perceived intellectual is a genuine instance of such a person if he or she is severely lacking in intellectual virtue. The true intellectual must have a suitable measure of intellectual virtue. Diplomas are no assurance of that.

The Ph.D. candidate has already been initiated into academic life—the life of the guild, as it were. One can only hope that this also has included initiation into the intellectual life. The ABD life is a test of intellectual virtue, and an opportunity to grow in intellectual virtue. Certain particular virtues are especially salient to commendable intellectual practice at the ABD stage in one’s career. Here are three of them:

  • Curiosity
  • Courage
  • Moderation

Intellectual curiosity is a natural goad to dissertation research. Intellectual courage is needed to sustain research and overcome obstacles. The virtue of moderation curbs excesses of various kinds. Dissertation research tests the expression of these virtues.

Curiosity stimulates creativity and supplies the initial energy to launch a dissertation project. It’s often difficult to sustain that level of curiosity throughout the research and writing process. The Ph.D. candidate needs to have ways of staying engaged with the chosen topic. As long as new questions emerge with the progress of research, there is evidence of curiosity.

Courage helps the researcher stay at it. The intellectually courageous person believes in the good to be achieved by the research that has been undertaken. Courage fills the void when curiosity dries up, and finds fresh sources of curiosity in the act of persevering. This virtue is threatened in numerous ways. Among the most sinister are the negative judgments of others.

Moderation is probably the least appreciated of the three. Moderation protects the researcher from excesses that would lure him or her away from efficient realization of the primary objective. One can research to excess. The sociology of the ABD experience reinforces the sense that it isn’t possible to “over-research” a topic. Turning over every rock, however promising it may seem in advance, feels responsible; but it is really counter-productive, and hence irresponsible.

Future installments on “Hacking the ABD Life” will focus on specific intellectual virtues. Please chime in with thoughts you have about the connection between the intellectual life and doing scholarship from virtue. Let me know what virtues you think are most salient to realizing that dream of passing from ABD to Ph.D.

Hacking the ABD Life: Part 1 — “Good” Means “Good Enough”


ABD—”All But Dissertation.” This label has a distinctly demoralizing drum to it, especially as a designation for someone—the Ph.D. candidate—who has accomplished so much, usually comparatively early in life.

Of course, writing a doctoral dissertation is a huge undertaking in its own right. And it can make or break a Ph.D. candidate’s academic career. There are two main challenges. The first is as much psychological as it is anything else. You have to have “internal fortitude,” the ability to take small steps toward the completion of a big project, to manage hurdles and set-backs, and to survive the comparative loneliness of the process.

Second, you have to impress your dissertation committee with the quality of the finished product and with your prospects as a scholar. So the work has to be good. This, obviously, relates closely to the first main challenge.

Let me repeat the best advice I received while writing my Ph.D. dissertation: “Think of your dissertation as the last paper you write during your formal education, and keep in mind that it really doesn’t have to be longer than a hundred pages.” It didn’t hurt that this counsel came from a member of my dissertation committee.

The suggestion about length is probably situation-specific. It would be wise to consult with your committee about appropriate length. And “consultation” is the key word here. You should be able to share your own ideas about appropriate length, given your topic and the way you plan to organize your material. It is generally believed that the best dissertation topic is a narrowly focused topic. It would stand to reason that in many cases narrower focus translates into fewer total pages. There’s a saying, “Don’t beat a dead horse.” There’s another saying, “If the horse is dead, dismount.” The goal shouldn’t be to come up with a topic that will require X number of pages, but to come up with a topic that makes a worthy contribution to the field and establishes the author as a capable scholar, regardless of word count.

The more general principle in my advisor’s comment is that the dissertation isn’t a book. It’s not even a published paper. I caution against approaching your dissertation as if you were writing a book manuscript that will be ready to submit to one of the top academic presses. Your dissertation committee is large enough with the three to five people that play that official role. No point trying to write for the vague target audience for a book on the same topic. Save that for later.

Let me put it this way. You’ve got three people on your committee. Maybe one of them knows quite a lot about your topic. The other two are conversant. Are there others in the discipline who have go-to expertise on your topic? Probably so. Will they be in the room during your dissertation defense? Probably not. So you can forget about them.

Your work has to be good. I said that before. But how good does it have to be? Answer: good enough (lower-case “g”). So estimate how good that is and make that your goal. And I do mean estimate. Don’t calculate. Members of your committee have responsibilities. They should be able to advise you about what their expectations are. No one else’s opinion really counts, especially if they don’t see the work before the defense. (That includes the expert on another continent, and it includes your doting grandmother and admiring spouse—if you happen to be married.)

If you’re ABD, let me know your thoughts. If you’re on a dissertation committee for someone who is ABD, your comments would be especially valuable.

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