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Sunday, 22 July 2007

I want to compare styles in three books I've read part of today.

The first is A History of Erotic Literature (1982) by Patrick J. Kearney, a bibliographer specialising in erotic books. In a dry, meticulous fashion in his introduction (pp. 7 - 18), Kearney elencates and assesses the various bibliographies that have appeared over the past 150 years or so. All are of erotic books.

There is scope for entertainment, but it is missed. Similarly, the illustrations in Kearney's book tend to be first pages of old books containing pictures of men and women having sex, rather than the pictures of sex themselves. I didn't read past the intro, and I think that's partly the book's fault. I'm a busy man and I don't want to waste my lovely weekend reading about books about books.

I then picked up Making Books: Contemporary Australian Publishing (2007), which I bought at Kinokuniya's last Friday. The first piece is by Jenny Lee, an academic. The second piece is by Ann Galligan, a doctoral student. The third piece, by Simone Murray, is equally dry. She's an academic in Melbourne.

Here's a sample of Murray's prose:

While the East and West affair demonstrates the extent to which book publishing is embedded within the sphere of multinational commerce, the future of conglomerate media is less likely to revolve around face-offs between one medium and another (as, for example, book publishing versus television, in the Murdoch instance) than it is to focus upon potential relationships between media formats controlled by the same corporation.

My reaction is similarly cold to this type of prose. Apart from the fact that I abhor the use of 'upon' when 'on' will do just as well.

The final book I picked up today is by a journalist, Joann Ellison Rodgers, entitled Sex: A Natural History (2001). Here's a sample:

Scholars know, often from bitter experience, that without the instincts of a cold warrior, studying sex can be dangerous and getting published punitive. Nearly every scientist I interviewed (more than fifty) volunteered that she or he had felt the threat of career-killing disapproval by public and private funding agencies, politicians, institutions, and the public.

I don't know about you, but this kind of style engages and diverts, at the same times as educating me. I need those extra qualities, just as my body needs a range of foodstuffs to survive. As J. M. Coetzee has Daniel Defoe telling Sarah Barton in his 1986 novel, Foe:

'The island lacks light and shade. It is too much the same throughout. It is like a loaf of bread. It will keep us alive, certainly, if we are starved of reading; but who will prefer it when there are tastier confections and pastries to be had?'

(In the book, Sarah is the survivor of a shipwreck on the island where Robinson Crusoe lived, is rescued, and returns to England along with Friday, his companion. In contact with Foe, she tries to get him to write their story in the way she wants it told. She has many suggestions, one of which is to concentrate the narrative focus on what happened on the island where Friday and Crusoe lived.)

I prefer 'tastier confections' to dry, academic prose. This may be why the word 'academic' is used as a derogatory: the argument appears to be about something that has no relevance to ordinary people, or ordinary life. It lacks the 'light and shade' people require if they are to be engaged.

Like me, they turn off. I tried to do something lively for an assignment last semester, however, and got blasted. It demonstrates that the culture is ingrained in the academic psyche, and unlikely to be dislodged. It's a pity, because academics have a tremendous amount to contribute to society. But if they insist on being dry and 'balanced' they will not engage the populace.

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