David Greenberg had two interesting articles last week about the gap between academic and popular history, and how to bridge it. This suggests an interesting question. Which academic books are fit for human consumption? Or, to put it less polemically, which books written for academic purposes deserve, should find (or in some cases have found) a more general readership among intelligent people who are either (a) non-academics, or (b) aren’t academic specialists in the discipline that the book is written for. Nominations invited. To start the ball rolling, I’m listing three (fairly obvious imo) contenders myself.
E.P. Thompson, Making of the English Working Class. A classic, which reads more like a novel than a piece of academic history, rescuing organizers, sectaries, pamphleteers and gutter journalists “from the enormous condescension of posterity.” Moving, smart, and wonderfully written.
Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice and Loyalty. A stunningly simple idea, worked out to its logical conclusions – it creates a new vocabulary for understanding how social institutions work.
James Scott, Seeing Like A State. Libertarians will like the critique of state-led social engineering, but be discomfited by Scott’s account of the totalizing effects of markets. Traditional social democrats and socialists will have the opposite set of reactions. Both should read it (as should anyone else interested in the intersection between political theory and real life).