Thursday, January 1, 2009

Wise Well-Written Words

Why can't scholars be better writers? Writing well is hard work, but it is well worth the effort if one wants to be read.

Benjamin Schwarz's article "Geography Is Destiny" (a review of Europe Between the Oceans) in the December 2008 issue of The Atlantic has an artful lead-in that reminded me both of how dull academic writing often is and of how good popular writing can be. It was merely a bonus that Schwarz's insightful comments about archaeology cut to the heart of the pop biblical archaeology explosion of 2008. Enjoy. Take notes. Learn.
Great archaeologists are often at war with themselves. They aim to explain seismic transformations—social and cultural, economic, demographic, even genetic. But they do so by sifting (literally and figuratively) physical evidence that's scant and (literally and figuratively) fragmentary. These methods mean that nearly all their publications are narrow and exceedingly dry, even by academic standards. And even on those rare occasions when they venture beyond the journal article or monograph, their writing seldom tempts even the most archaeologically besotted general reader. For instance, although the great archaeologist of Mesopotamia Robert McCormick Adams has revolutionized scholars' understanding of the origins of urban civilization, his oversize tomes, with their detailed maps of watercourses and settlement patterns and meticulous charts of pottery types, resemble field reports, not works of history. But because archaeology addresses the most basic questions and explores the most profound changes in human history by means of a grossly incomplete record—and perhaps because it was long the province of aristocrats and buccaneers—it has invited the sort of bold interpretations in which speculation can too easily become untethered from evidence. When archaeology is done right, it's frequently dull; when it's fascinating, it's frequently wrong.

So Europe Between the Oceans, at once compelling and judicious, is an extraordinary book. . . .

1 comment:

  1. I wonder how many scholars regularly read something (in their own language) because its well written. How many put down our tools time-to-time and read something beautiful that we enjoy?