If I can’t cite it, I don’t read it

Academics spend a great deal of their time reading, or so we claim. Of course, much of that reading material is made up of endless streams of email, committee reports (academics seem to love committees), grant proposals, manuscripts for peer review, and student papers, and more student papers, and even more student papers. When it comes to reading in support of our own research (a much-desired luxury), journal articles (for the most part short, up to date, and highly specific) are the go to source. So, what about books?

Quite frankly, academics don’t have time to read books. Of course, that doesn’t stop us from reviewing them, praising them, trashing them, rolling our eyes when colleagues admit to not having read them, and most importantly — citing them. Wait, if we haven’t read them, how can we possibly cite them? Well, here’s the trick.

Our secret, okay?

When I pick up a book that appears to be of some interest, or that has been recommended to me as essential reading, I turn to page 36. If after reading that one page, I can’t find anything worth citing, I stop. The author had that one chance to impress me, and they blew it. There’s no shortage of other books for me to sample. Of course, even if I do find something worth citing on that page, I may not read any more of the book.

I don’t attach any special significance to the number 36; it was an arbitrary choice. Of course, if I had picked a smaller number (say 7), I would likely be presented with the sort of introductory blah, blah, blah, that most readers could skip anyway. If I had selected a larger number like 187, I would run the risk of becoming mired in the mile-deep impenetrable minutiae through which academics justify their existence, thereby missing the forest for the trees. So, 36 it is. Let’s look at some examples (did that come across as pedantic?).

Less can be more

Starting with a much-cited book that has generated years of often heated debate, here is all you need from Edward Said’s Orientalism:

The argument, when reduced to its simplest form, was clear, it was precise, it was easy to grasp. There are Westerners, and there are Orientals. The former dominate; the latter must be dominated…

What more could you possibly want? Whether you’re a historian writing about imperialism, an economist writing about exploitation, a sociologist writing about race and ethnic relations, or a philosopher writing about dualism, this quote is perfect. By the way, where exactly is the dividing line between West and East? Just curious.

Combining that one quote from Said with the following quote from Morris Rossabi’s A History of China, sets you up perfectly to discuss the intellectual foundations of the modern world, and wax philosophical about just what it is exactly that constitutes civilization.

Perhaps even more significant for Chinese civilization was a profusion of ideas and philosophies that generated the so-called Hundred Schools of Thought, an outburst that coincided with a philosophical flowering in many of the great civilizations of the era.

Style and substance

Understanding that readers can become entranced in a sort of, going through the motions, I’ve done this a thousand times before, rhythm of half-reading, it’s helpful to throw in a Ciceronian sentence, especially if you’re trying to ensure that they are engaged enough to pick up on what you think is something especially significant in what you’re about to say. In this regard, even when you are writing non-fiction, you should feel free to borrow from works of fiction.

Important tip

When citing fiction, you need to select a classic work that everyone has heard of, but which relatively few have read. Even better, it should be a lengthy tome, potentially one selected from a multi-volume epic, and originally written in a language other than English. I have a fondness for Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, volume one of his In Search of Lost Time.

I knew that of all possible positions the one I was now placing myself in was the one that could provoke the gravest consequences for me, coming from my parents, much graver in truth than a stranger would have supposed, the sort he would have believed could be produced only by truly shameful misdeeds.

While not one of his longest sentences, it is adequately convoluted and self-effacing to give pause to even the most attentive reader. You’ve got the readers attention. They’ll take a moment to be impressed by the fact that you are quoting Proust. They’ll take another moment to wonder whether you’ve read the entire book, let alone the entire series (not me, that’s for sure). Now, hit them with your best shot.

Unintended, but fortuitous, consequences

On occasion, page 36 turns out to be the final page of a chapter. This is a gift. You should expect to find a pithy summary statement — one that can relieve you of the labor of having to interpret, contextualize, or otherwise spoon feed the reader. Take the following example from the Theological Tractates of Boethius, a work that formed the basis of my first graduate thesis.

If these things are right and in accordance with the Faith, I pray you confirm me; or if you are in any point of another opinion, examine carefully what has been said, and if possible, reconcile faith and reason.

Wow, I couldn’t have said it better myself (if I’d been writing in the early sixth century).

Okay, I cheated. Did you catch it? This quote is actually from page 37. Here is what appears on page 36.

Haec si se recte et ex fide habent, ut me instruas peto; aut si aliqua re forte diversus es, diligentius intuere quae dicta sunt et fidem si poterit rationemque coniunge.

Modern editions of ancient works are generally printed with the original text in Latin, Greek, or whatever (pick your favorite dead language) on the verso (left, and thus even-numbered) pages, and the translation on the recto (right, and thus odd-numbered) pages (now that was definitely pedantic, mea culpa).

Even if you’re not writing about ancient Latin texts, up until the early twentieth century, no scholar in their right mind, irrespective of their discipline, would dare to submit a journal article, let alone a book, for publication without peppering it liberally with Latin phrases. In the humanities, ubiquitous footnotes often contained lengthy quotes from the likes of Cicero, Juvenal, Tacitus, or Aquinas, if for no other reason than to demonstrate that you had paid your dues and were humbly claiming to be doing nothing more than to see further by standing on the shoulders of giants (a little nod to Sir Isaac Newton to finish things off).

Take home message

Pick your page number, grab some books, and establish your place among the erudite and intellectually superior.

Thanks for reading

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