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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Friday, August 28, 2009

In Kansas City ... and reading Unscientific America

I am now in Kansas City after getting here from San Antonio via a circuitous and inefficient route (which, nonetheless, involved getting a cheap airfare). I've spent much of my time in the air reading Unscientific America, which I've now almost finished. One chapter to go.

I'm going to keep most of my powder dry until I have time to write a proper review (not necessarily here), but I'm currently trying to digest the arguments, and I still need to read that last chapter (which will reveal all the solutions to America's woes of scientific illiteracy). But I'll just note one thing about the book that has been driving me nuts. Huge amounts of its substantive argument are tucked away in long expository notes at the back - often a page or more long. This makes the book almost unreadable.

For Zeus's sake, guys, next time find a way to work this sort of material into the text. It wouldn't be very difficult. Right now, the book reads like a first draft, and, to be blunt, it should not have been published in this form.

If expository material is worth including at all, it should be in the main text. If it's not important enough for that, it shouldn't be included; save it for another book. In this case, much of the substantive argument is pursued in the notes, and a reader has to be flicking back and forth constantly to try to follow the logic of what is actually being put. It's incredibly frustrating. Notes are for detailed citations, the occasional brief peripheral comment or qualification, or sometimes for scholarly apparatus such as the original of a quote in another language that has been translated in the main text. Or sometimes for (brief) witticisms. But not for the guts of the arguments.

If your editor told you to do it this way, he or she should be fired, because it makes your book a nightmare to read. Whatever its faults, it's quite lucidly written, so why spoil that with such an unfriendly structure?


Blake Stacey said...

Following the logic of Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire, maybe they were trying to get you to buy two copies to be read side-by-side, one open to the text and the other to the footnotes?

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, the comparison with Pale Fire occurred to me, too, though they are endnotes rather than footnotes.

MosesZD said...

Oh, oh... I was thinking about buying this book... But I have so much on my list...

Jerry Coyne said...

Great ribs in KC--I like LC's BBQ, which is better than Arthur Bryant's (still good). Get the burnt-ends sandwich. Also, for a world class steak, the Playboy strip steak at Jess and Jim's in KC is the beef of choice.

This should palliate reading the book. . . .

Russell Blackford said...

What I really need is steak and chocolate. Jenny's illness is trying to get me, and those foods will have the best ammunition for me as I continue my efforts to fight it off. Fortunately, Jenny is getting a bit better.

Russell Blackford said...

Ah, I just had some chocolate. I'm not that keen in Hersheys: they really ought to have Cadbury Dairy Milk here in the US. But that Hersheys bar has done the trick for now.

Onward to a steak!

Jerry Coyne said...


Go HERE, and be sure to get the Playboy Strip (check out the photos). It's a really famous place:


Sorry about Jenny; hope she feels better.