I can’t remember how old I was when I first encountered the word “doorstopper,” meaning an exceptionally thick book, but I do remember the pleasure I felt in learning it—perhaps in part because the word somehow sounds like what it describes. I have never entertained a prejudice against long books simply because they are long. At the same time, I think many books, fiction and nonfiction alike, would be better if they were shorter.
For the last few weeks, as it happens, I have been keeping company with an exceptionally long book, David Hackett Fischer’s African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Freedom. The bound galley clocks in at 905 pages; the finished book will include an index as well. Recently, in the space of less than a week, I received copies of three more doorstoppers, all of them, like Fischer’s book, by distinguished figures in their various fields: first, Mark Noll, America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794–1911, 846 pages; then Thomas Pfau, Incomprehensible Certainty: Metaphysics and Hermeneutics of the Image, 785 pages; and finally, Martin Edwards, The Life of Crime: Detecting the History of Mysteries and Their Creators, 724 pages.
The faintly preposterous conjunction of these four massive yet most welcome books offered yet another reminder that in writing (as in life in general), we are always making trade-offs. You can’t do everything at once. Each of these writers assumes (rightly, I believe) that a sufficient audience exists for the sort of in-depth study he provides; at the same time, each knows that some readers will zero in on certain parts of the book in question while skimming or simply skipping others. Fischer and Noll seek to serve both fellow scholars and committed general readers; Pfau writes primarily for academics (his book is winsomely dedicated “for my students, also my teachers”); and Edwards writes primarily for general readers, but with a degree of comprehensiveness that distinguishes his account from many similar ventures. Taken together, these four books suggest that laments over the state of reading and the state of publishing are exaggerated (the same is suggested by the continued vitality of magazines such as First Things).
Why, I wonder, is hand-wringing so fashionable among commentators whose own commitments span the ideological spectrum? There is, as always, a lot of dreck, plenty of bad thinking and bad writing to go around, an abundance of doublespeak, but there is also far more worth reading and considering and talking about than anyone, or any committee of savants, could keep up with. Perhaps the routine rants play well with the “base” of various contending factions; maybe, alas, they generate more traffic, more subscriptions, more donations. (I recall the early would-be fundraiser who told me, to my horror, the pitch he was using for Books & Culture: The magazine would “change the culture.”)
As I have recounted on other occasions, I grew up with my younger brother and our mother and grandmother in Pomona, California, attending mostly Baptist churches where it wasn’t unusual to hear conversations after the service about the founding of the State of Israel in relation to the End Times, incongruously mixed with everyday subjects (planned family trips, etc.). I came to the conclusion, which I couldn’t have explicitly formulated until I was older, that the End Times chatter wasn’t to be taken too seriously. Today I often encounter a different sort of apocalyptic chatter, having to do with the fate of the Church going forward in “our society.” Does it merit more serious consideration? Hard to say, but I’m struck by the radically truncated and highly selective historical memory that seems to characterize so many accounts of our current situation. Books such as those I mentioned above provide a useful antidote.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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