"Who says academics 'can't write?' David Damrosch argues that a clear prose style is perfectly consistent with the highest levels of academic thought and expression..."Marrying readability and erudition? Sounds like the principal (and most often failed) objective of erc's academic/blogging career! I'm reminded of one of the evaluations of my senior thesis:
"...it's not surprising that the language of the essay often mimics the abstractions that characterize post-structuralist writing. I would have liked...a more sparing use of semicolons."
Anyways, Damrosch--a former Yalie--recently finished a history of the Epic of Gilgamesh, not a rambling 35-page dissertation on unintelligible poetry. "Trading Up with Gilgamesh" begins with an exploration of the tenuous relationship between academia and commercial publishing. Damrosch insists that scholars desperately want to convey their ideas to the public (and make ton$ of dollar$), but are often unwilling to sacrifice the esoteric language that often accompanies detailed academic analysis in order to "start turning out sound bites in prose."
Like any good contemporary theorist, Damrosch's prose corresponds to his argument (uh oh, here comes another semi-colon); his writing is clear and entertaining, but never cliche. The article begins by describing the germ of his book's concept, or his frustration with "the rhetoric of a 'clash of civilizations'" proffered by the right and parroted by the press before the war in
The article then transitions into Damrosch's struggle to find a publisher who would assist him in communicating his undeniably arcane subject matter in a lucid, interesting manner. In telling the story of his pursuit of the "perfect publisher," he situates himself as a sort of intellectual Goldilocks--the first press was too "hard-core" academic, the second was too commercial, and the third, Henry Holt, was "just right."
For some reason, I found this article to be strangely off-putting. The first time I read it, I couldn't ascertain the source of my discomfort; upon re-reading it, I realized that I felt betrayed by the structure of the narrative--the abstract beginning and specific ending. There's nothing unusual or wrong about an academic writing an article that endorses his or her trade book, but the offhand allusions that began cropping up halfway through the article--the subject matter, the names of the publisher and editor--simply took me off guard. It's like watching a guest on a late night talk show who begins by discussing politics and ends by yelling, "Yo, my album drops this week." Also, I realized that the piece was linked under "Essays and opinions," not "New Books."
Which isn't to say that this isn't a good piece (it's interesting and will take you about five minutes to read), but rather that I shouldn't form preconceptions about things based on blurbs.