Monday, June 23, 2003

Big Books and Little Books; Sprawling Books and Lean Books; Rich Books and Thin Books

Consider two recent books:

Mike Redmayne, Expert Evidence and Criminal Justice (Oxford, 2001);

and

James Franklin, The Science of Conjecture: Evidence and Probability before Pascal (Johns Hopkins, 2001).

Both of these books, I am convinced, are very good books. Yet Franklin's book will not win -- it has not won -- consistent praise from academicians. It has gotten high praise -- extravagant praise -- in some quarters. But some reviewers have given the book rather lukewarm praise.

Why?

Perhaps Franklin's book is not as good a book as I think it is.

That explanation does not wash: Franklin's book is magnificent

So what is the explanation?

This: Today's academicians prefer monographs or books written in the style of a monograph.

  • Redmayne's excellent book is in fact a monograph.
  • Monographs are "economical," they are "spare," they deal with a single and narrow topic, and they dispense with all extraneous material.

    But is a monograph intrinsically superior to a big and sprawling book?

    I say, "No."

    It is true that sprawling books are harder to read.

    But there is much to be said -- there is a great deal to be said -- for the sheer wealth of detail that a big book can contain.

    Details are an important form of wealth, and they are particularly when the matter under discussion is history.

    In a work about history, it is (sometimes) a pleasure to have an author's conclusions. But it is an equally great pleasure to have the basis for the author's conclusions, it is useful to have the historical record on which an author's conclusions rest.

    There is room for both kinds of books: monographs and sprawling, leisurely, expansive, exploratory excursions into foreign and complex terrain.

  • It is worth keeping in mind that some matters cannot be reduced to a simple or single formula or theme. The history of probability may be such a matter.
  • In any event, if you are interested in uncertain human knowledge, I strongly recommend that you take Franklin's book with you on your two-month vacation. (Less time will not do.) Think of The Science of Conjecture as a non-fiction equivalent of Tolstoy's War and Peace, which, I confess, I have never had the time and leisure to read.

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