Shelf Life

by Kieran Healy on April 7, 2004

Some comments to this post by Ted raised the question of the public face of academic disciplines, as seen at Barnes and Noble or Borders. The shelf-test isn’t perfect, of course, because not every field needs to have a public face, even chain bookstores vary quite widely, and Borders and Barnes and Noble are not really meant for academics. But they are meant for everyone, and academics must form part of that category. (This reminds me, by the by, of an example from the late, great Dick Jeffrey. “Everybody loves my baby, but my baby don’t love nobody but me” goes the song. Who is my baby?) So, what can we learn about the social sciences and humanities from a visit to the local book barn?

Philosophy: The immortal giants continue to dominate the field: Kant, Nietzsche, and Rand. Especially the latter. In Metaphysics and Epistemology, Descartes may sometimes be found and possibly also Quine (whose work was both anticipated and eclipsed by Ayn Rand, in the manner of Kierkegaard and Hegel). But the most exciting work in contemporary Metaphysics is being done by David Icke, whose tightly-argued lizard ontology has revolutionized the field in recent years.

Sociology: Dominated in the 1990s by research on the O.J. Simpson trial, sociologists have recently turned their attention to Frank McCourt’s early adulthood and life in the year 2000.

Economics: The founding fathers, Adam Smith and Thomas Sowell, are the mainstays of this now defunct field which barely hangs on, surrounded by better-grounded research programs like Stock Marketeering and Retirement Planning.

Law: Core subjects like True Crime and Do-It-Yourself-Divorce Kits continue to be well-represented. But recently, constitutional theory has been on the rise through titles like David Bernstein’s You Can’t Say That I Didn’t Publicize This Book Enough.

Cultural Studies: Cultural Studies can now be found resisting capitalism every other month in a special pull-out-and-keep section of Cosmo Girl.

History: Content has stablized since the 1996 law requiring that 90 percent of all history books be about the Civil War or World War II. The remainder can be about how the ethnic group of your choice saved everyone else’s sorry asses, but it’s not like people are grateful or anything.

Psychology: See under Weight Loss, Substance Abuse Recovery, and Conversations with People and Pets who have “Crossed Over.”

Political Science: As noted in the comments to Ted’s post, the long-running scholarly disagreement between the patriot-realists and the quisling-islamofascists continues with no end in sight, unless the recent move to outlaw opposition to Hanniti’ite Clerics proves successful.



dsquared 04.07.04 at 5:03 pm

For UK, you can take Rand out of the philosophy section to be replaced with Kalil Gibran, and the Sociology section is entirely composed of books about drugs.


jdsm 04.07.04 at 5:22 pm

To be honest, in Canada you can take philosophers out of the philosophy section and replace them with mumbo jumbo self-help rubbish.


John Isbell 04.07.04 at 5:28 pm

The baby quote springboards off Robert Johnson:
“I love my baby,
My baby don’t love me.”
Not a great couplet, I think, unlike this from B.B. King:
“Nobody loves me but my mother,
And she might be jivin’ too.”


Ophelia Benson 04.07.04 at 5:53 pm

Very funny!

Rand in the philosophy section has contributed a lot to the wearing down of my molars over the years. I hint at this irritation in her Dictionary entry at B&W –

Rand, Ayn
Hollywood screenwriter, later writer of huge thick novels, then a philosopher, but for some reason I can never find her in the philosophy reference books I look in. Maybe I have the spelling wrong.


Chris in Boston 04.07.04 at 5:53 pm

I’ve often cringed at the lack of rigorous work in the Sociology sections of book stores. At least the Philosophy section has “great books” thinkers. Try finding even Weber and Durkheim (much less Merton and Goffman) in your run-of-the-mill Sociology bookstore shelf. Instead, “sociology” means “contemporary issues” and describes content rather than approach. I half suspect that the problem reflects the low esteem that sociology as a discipline holds today.

As for another example of meagre bookstore rigor, need I add that there’s often little studying going on in the “Gay/Lesbian Studies” section?

I realize that these bookstores are not academic or semi-academic bookstores (and in fairness I think the Boston Borders does a better job than some others), but they nonetheless want to draw on the cache of categorizing general interest books as serious studies. They should just drop the pretense.


Ophelia Benson 04.07.04 at 6:09 pm

Exactly. Weber, Durkheim, Goffman and Merton are among the people I have tried to find in the Sociology sections. To be fair, I have found quite a lot of Goffman and a little Weber, but zero Merton and maybe one Durkheim.


Miriam 04.07.04 at 6:37 pm

My local Borders doesn’t do a particularly good job in this respect. Apparently, “Christianity” consists of “inspirational” fiction, LaHaye & Jenkins, assorted Bibles, and the occasional “How Catholics Can Fend Off Raving Fundamentalists” how-to manual. That being said, there are large-scale B&N and Borders stores near my parents which stock quite a bit of serious theology and “name” scholars. History, though, always tends to be a bit of a wasteland.


Matt McG 04.07.04 at 8:22 pm

I don’t really have this problem. But then, my local bookshop is this one….

Other UK bookshops helpfully tended to shelve the shite (and I use ‘shite’ here as a technical term) under “Mind, Body & Spirit”. So one has at least a 50/50 chance of finding actual philosophy shelved under ‘Philosophy’.

[P.S. ‘Merkans – What is it with that Ayn Rand thing?]


bob mcmanus 04.07.04 at 8:45 pm

“[P.S. ‘Merkans – What is it with that Ayn Rand thing?]”

Perpetual adolescence, arrested development, terminal Romanticism,
psuedo-intellectualism thinking the value of a book lies in its weight in kg

“Quine (whose work was both anticipated and eclipsed by Ayn Rand, in the manner of Kierkegaard and Hegel)”

Do not understand this line, being a Rand detractor and a Kierkegaard fan.

Sad about K., religion seems to have bounced over him, or degraded below the point at which it is able to find him useful. And philosophy, save a short period after WWII, never had much use for him. Maybe if there is a Kant comback…


Ophelia Benson 04.07.04 at 9:06 pm

What is it with that Rand thing – beats the hell out of me. We’re a gullible people, I’m afraid. But why we are, I don’t know.


Keith 04.07.04 at 9:29 pm

I worked at B&N for 2 and a half years. Durring that time we moved the Gay and Lesbian section three times, the first because it was too close to the African-American section and numerous customers (all black and Baptist) complained (often loudly, while standing in the middle of the store, shouting about fags next to their Sista Solja). Eventualy GLBT ended up around the corner, facing the Military History section, which made it possible for the boys from Hunter Army Air base to do all their shopping in one isle.

Then my Morman Boss got the bright idea of Moving Judaica three isles down, from the heart of the Religion section over to the end of New Age. It stayed there a week before it was crammed into the already crowded Eastern Philosophy Section, where all the books on Taoism and Buddhism were kept.


Keith 04.07.04 at 9:35 pm

The Rand thing is easy to explain: It provides narcisits with long sentances to chew on in lieu of an actual explenation for their selfishness. What budding young American anarcho-capitalist wouldn’t love that?


Nat Whilk 04.07.04 at 11:51 pm

Keith wrote:

“Then my Morman Boss got the bright idea of Moving Judaica three isles down”

Got to watch out for those MormAns. Did he have you move these books from Oahu to Maui?


mjones 04.08.04 at 12:38 am

Check out the literary criticism section: lots of books about how to read, books about what to read, and books about what others like to read.


oodja 04.08.04 at 2:04 am

What is it with that Ayn Rand thing?

One word for you: Rush

(and no, not Limbaugh!)


Chris Lawrence 04.08.04 at 4:20 am

As I noted when Kieran raised this issue a long time ago (back at his own blog), academic political science and popular “political science” are about the most disconnected disciplines, although IR is rather better represented (perhaps because IR scholars either do more “relevant” work or are better at popularizing their work) than any other subfield (though political theorists of the normative sort get shuffled off to philosophy sections).

It’s a rare day when I find anything even borderline scholarly in American political science (much less political behavior, American or comparative) at a bookstore.


Mario 04.08.04 at 10:55 am

“[P.S. ‘Merkans – What is it with that Ayn Rand thing?]”

bob mcmanus: “Perpetual adolescence, arrested development, terminal Romanticism,
psuedo-intellectualism thinking the value of a book lies in its weight in kg”

I’m sorry, but no self respecting American thinks in kilograms.


Emily 04.08.04 at 1:25 pm

I’m glad it’s not just East Asian history and linguistics that suffer from this problem, then! This is what college has done to me: I used to eagerly await every trip to Borders. Now I whine, perfectly seriously, that they don’t have any books.


Nat Whilk 04.08.04 at 2:24 pm

With Amazon and other online bookstores, why does anyone care anymore what’s on the shelves at Borders and Barnes & Noble? Because you can’t drink your coffee and eat your danish while thumbing through a book at Amazon? (Let’s at least hope you’re not pulling a George Costanza.)


des 04.08.04 at 3:23 pm

With Amazon and other online bookstores, why does anyone care anymore what’s on the shelves at Borders and Barnes & Noble?

We live in hope that the Casual Browser(TM) will stumble across serious books and fall into our sinister, America-hating academic leftiste clutches. Our agents, who are legion, seed Bible-belt bookstores with Neitzsche, Marx and Bordieu and other filth in an attempt to poison the minds of America’s youth and not-so-youth.


Phersu 04.08.04 at 3:50 pm

In popular bookstores, the Philosophy section is often just History of Philosophy between Religion and Occultism/New Age.
Metaphysics is the study of Parapsychic phenomena.
Chomsky only wrote about politics.

In French non-academic bookstores, Philosophy is often a marginal section of Psychoanalysis (which is often called “Psychology”) and Social Sciences. Analytic philosophy is not within Philosophy but only lumped with “Logic and Philosophy of Science”.
Ethics stopped with Kant and Nietzsche.
We do not know Rand at all but on the other hand, we have authors like Alain Badiou ou Paul Virilio, who could be even worse than all the Objectivist Übergeeks.


Chris 04.08.04 at 6:09 pm

Back to the econ section for a while, if there even is one:

More stuff that we learn about economics:

1. That John Kenneth Galbraith is a more respected economist than Keynes, Friedman, or Krugman, maybe combined.

2. That international econ is all about impoverishing otherwise rich countries like Vietnam (if you’re anti-trade) or working miracles on the same (if you’re pro-trade).

3. That macro/finance (one field) is really about delivering numerical predictions about next quarter’s GDP or interest rates or financial variables.

4. That mathematical models are the bane of economic thinking–why would we ever want to think of quantitative things in mathematical terms?! That models are useless because they’re abstract.

5. That economics is a branch of pure philosophy rather than a difficult science (loosely defined).

6. That minor changes in policy can permanently affect things like unemployment in a big way–that the economic problems of the world revolve around jobs, jobs, jobs.

7. That all that economists (who are invariably very conserative) care about is money AND/OR

8. That economists are raving Marxists who are not to be trusted.

9. That there are no such fields as labor economics, social economics, macro (post-1960), or economic history. That economics and finance, management, or business are the same thing.

10. That models of optimizing individuals or budget constraints are useless because there is complexity theory.


Ruth 04.08.04 at 8:02 pm

Although one (mostly) legitimate complaint about the chains is that they’re bland, homogenizing entities, I think I have to offer a geographical caveat to your 1996 history law: here in Richmond, VA, 90% Civil War *or* WWII just won’t do….


Dan 04.09.04 at 3:09 am

The economics sections usually seem to do adequately – it’s usually easy enough to find the major works by Galbraith, Friedman and a few others. The more math-based stuff is harder to find, but then understanding econometric applications is all but impossible for non-economists (and more than a few economists) Some stores have been enlightened enough to separate economics from business in recent years.


hegemo 04.09.04 at 5:20 pm

Personally, I’m still giggling over finding Bowling Alone shelved in the ‘Sports’ section at my local Half Price Books

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