Are You A Casual Reader?

Wayne Hsieh shared a short review of his new book written by Richard Hatcher III.  Hatcher offered the following refrain at the end of his review:

While an interesting book, “West Pointers” has been written in a format that will appeal specifically to an academic military readership. This is not for the casual reader, but for one who is interested in and has a working knowledge of the subject.

I find it funny that Hatcher said the same thing about a collection of essays on Civil War soldiers that I contributed to back in 2007.  It’s no big deal, but it is worth asking who and what exactly is a “casual reader”?  I would love to know if Hatcher considers his own excellent study of Wilson’s Creek to be appropriate for casual readers.  What follows is a slightly reworked version of my earlier response to Hatcher.

First let me say that as a descriptive claim Hatcher may in fact be right that this book will only appeal to a select group of readers.  That said, for the life of me I don’t understand why anyone would agree to review a book in a popular newspaper if all that is to be said is tantamount to: This book isn’t for you.  I have no doubt that there are plenty of people whose interest in the Civil War is simple entertainment and storytelling; however, there are just as many people who are willing to think critically and take their knowledge to the next level.

Instead of simply acknowledging what may in fact be descriptively true why not suggest that those people who are looking to deepen their understanding of soldier life would do well to consult this book.  Given the number of notable Civil War soldiers who graduated West Point and the myriad ways in which the institution figures in our popular memory of the war, wouldn’t a wide audience do well to deepen their understanding?  I read the book and it was a fairly easy read and quite interesting to boot.  While I didn’t agree with all of his conclusions, Hsieh offers a very interesting perspective on how the history and culture of West Point shaped the evolution and outcome of the Civil War.  To suggest that only fellow academics will find this book to be of interest implies that there is no room or reason for the general reader to further his/her understanding.  I do not write only for fellow academics.  Assuming that my Crater manuscript sees the light of day I would be appalled to read a review implying that the study is suitable only for people who have advanced degrees, teach in a college or university or happen to live in the Northeast.

A newspaper review is going to reach a wide audience; why not encourage people to broaden and deepen their understanding of the Civil War whenever possible.  God knows we desperately need it.

9 responses... add one

Kevin-Hatcher’s comment does come across than more than a little elitist. We shouldn’t read it if we don’t know the secret handshake? Many of us may not be academically trained as historians but are self-taught and/or have academic training that provides applicable skills and have pretty formidable personal libraries. I have my B.A. in International Studies, with a minor in government, and I have a J.D. as well. In legal training in particular, we are trained to research, evaluate evidence, and analyze. I can see saying that a book is not for a beginner in the field, but, in any event, I don’t see the topics of either Hsieh’s book or your forthcoming book as all that likely to be attracting someone who is just beginning to study the Civil War.

I suppose embedded in this question are larger issues of audience, and how accessible “serious” historians can realistically make their work to “casual readers.” Writing and books are a two-way street, of course, and while authors are obligated in my opinion to write in a manner that suits their topic, readers also have to make a sufficient effort to acquire whatever it is that the author is offering. While I think historians as a rule should write in clear and jargon-free prose, I also think academic historians shouldn’t forego things like endnotes, simply for the sake of making the book less intimidating and “academic.”

Anyhow, Kevin, I do at least appreciate your vote of confidence that my prose style wasn’t super abstruse or dry as dust.

WH

If someone came to me looking for a good book on antebellum slavery I probably would not recommend Stephanie McCurry’s “Masters of Small Worlds” but I might recommend one of Ira Berlin’s books. I guess what I am suggesting is that we don’t have to draw a sharp line in the sand between academic books and popular titles. There is a wide spectrum of appropriateness depending on our needs and I suspect that all of us at one point or another cross various boundaries.

Kevin:

I’d agree with you if by “someone” you meant a person relatively new to scholarship on the subject. But even non-experts, I think, would find great value in McCurry’s book. It’s a superb study. (And I certainly didn’t take your post as implying otherwise.)

From what I know of him, Rick Hatcher’s no elitist. If anything, perhaps he might have picked his works more carefully, i.e., perhaps “buff” or “general reader” instead of “casual reader.”

And, by the way, I’m looking forward to reading Mr. Hsieh’s book; I’ve heard only good things about it.

Terry,

I’m still making my way through “Masters” as well as her new book on the Confederacy. The former is an incredibly thoughtful interpretation, but it is very slow going. I met Richard once at a conference and he is a very nice guy. Richard isn’t the first person to evaluate a book along such lines; in fact, I’ve done it a couple of times. I guess ever since I started blogging I’ve rethought some of my assumptions in suggesting books to different people.

Terry-That’s why I said that Hatcher’s COMMENT across as more than a little elitist, not that I thought that he was an elitist.

Margaret:

I should have taken my own advice and picked my words more carefully. You certainly did not call Rick an elitist–and I hadn’t thought you had. Just wanted to make that point about him. Sorry about the mixup.

Kevin:

It’s been so long since I read Masters of Small Worlds, I honestly can’t recall how quick a read it was. But its major points have remained with me. McCurry did a great job, I think, if showing how poorer whites fit in with, and tried to enter, SC’s slave society. A great antidote to folks who still argue that because their Confederate ancestor did not own slaves, he could not have been fighting for slavery in any way.

Terry-Not a problem. In retrospect, I could have been clearer in my original comment.

I believe that James McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” established that a book on a historical subject can be both scholarly and readable. Footnotes are not unknown in other disciplines (if you want to see footnotes run amok, try your average law review article).

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