For Whom Was This Written?

Have you ever picked up a book on a subject you were interested in learning more of, and you found it very hard to read? That’s the experience I am having right now with a history of Scotland. Part of my ethnic heritage is Scottish but I know next to nothing of this history of the land where some of my ancestors lived. I also read a fair amount of history, and so I’m not unaccustomed to reading accounts of people, places and events.

The book I picked up is a general treatment of the subject and not an academic monograph. I don’t think it would necessarily be used for a textbook. There are two basic problems I think I am having with this book.

First, I think the author has assumed too much about my knowledge of Scotland, particularly the chronology of events and kings and the physical geography. What maps are included often don’t include many of the place names in the text and it seems that the author just assumes you know where various regions or locations are (can you located the Highlands on a blank map or the Hebrides?). I’m sure someone reading this can but I cannot. There are even terms referring to practices, currency and positions of which I’m not familiar. Now it is not entirely a bad thing to have to look such things up but one does not always like to interrupt one’s reading to do so.

Second, the author has organized his material in a confusing pattern and has the infuriating habit of going back to an earlier time in the midst of a discussion of a particular period and discussing an earlier king or other figure. Since nearly all of these people are fairly new to me, this gets pretty confusing and the absence of chronologies or king lists makes it very confusing. The material is also organized topically and often a new topic starts out at an earlier time than where we left off. For example, you might cover wars in the fifteenth century, and then discuss economics beginning in the thirteenth.

Third, it seems that we’re given far more detail than might be necessary or remembered in an overview of Scottish history. Obviously there is good research here and the author wanted us to have the benefit of it. Most of the time, what I would rather have is further readings if there really is something I want to go into. I find myself losing the forest for the trees.

Barbara Tuchman, whose work I have always enjoyed once said,

“The writer’s object should be to hold the reader’s attention. I want the reader to turn the page and keep on turning until the end. This is accomplished only when the narrative moves steadily ahead, not when it comes to a weary standstill, overloaded with every item uncovered in the research.”  (source work unknown).

My sense with the particular work I am reading is that the writer has forgotten for whom he was writing, or that I am not the person for whom the book was intended. But it would seem that a single volume history covering nearly two millenia is not for the academic specialist. What is missing is a “narrative that moves steadily ahead”. Rather, the feeling is one of plodding my way through a forest, where I keep losing my path and getting lost in the dense undergrowth.

So why don’t I just put it down? OK, part of the reason is that I’m probably a bit (maybe more than a bit?) compulsive about finishing books I start. And I really did want to learn about Scotland’s history and I don’t want to buy and read another book on this right now. So I will likely soldier on to the end and certainly find some things of worth. I’ve already come to appreciate a bit more why independence continues to be such a thing for the Scots and yet the inextricable history of Scotland and England.

But my plea for those writing for those who are not specialists in your field is to have mercy on us! I’ve read many historians and scientists who seem to be able to do this. But if you can’t give us a coherent narrative, it might be better not to try and keep writing for the academic journals where there might be ten people who understand you. It does no one, not even trees, a favor to write a book for which there is no audience.

Have you read books that left you wondering for whom the book was written?

3 thoughts on “For Whom Was This Written?

  1. Bob, I sympathize with you. Many times I have been interested in a subject, only to find that all the books on that subject were poorly written. Which is what you’re talking about. As a result of too many of these experiences, I changed my approach and starting picking books by how well written they were, regardless of my interest in the material. As a result, I have read up on a lot of random subjects (which can be useful for a fiction writer), such as couture dressmaking techniques (I don’t sew), coffee production, and intelligent Republican political opinion (yes, it exists!).

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