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How Scholars Read


N THIS essay I argue

that the system of academic publishing comprises
not only a loose network of university and trade
presses but also the conventions and techniques
that govern how scholars write and how they read.
The operation of the publishing network does not
in itself tell us how scholarly writing and reading
developed as specialized practices of literacy. My
remarks chiefly concern how scholars read, but I
also offer related observations about how scholars
write, as well as suggestions for thinking about
what troubles the current state of academic publication. Although I hardly think it safe to assume
that our experiential knowledge of our own reading
and writing habits suffices to give a full or accurate
account of these practices, the absence of credible
empirical studies forces me to rely a good deal on
just this limited evidentiary basis. What I propose
in answer to the question of how scholars read at
best points to an agenda for future research.

I have found little scholarship on the subject of

how scholars read, but I am fortunate to be preceded on one point of particular interest by a great
scholar and even greater philosopher. That scholarphilosopher is Nietzsche. In book 5 of The Gay
Science, he offers an aphorism entitled Faced with
a Scholarly Booknot a very hopeful entrance
onto his subject. The aphorism begins:
We do not belong to those who have ideas only among
books, when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think
outdoorswalking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably
on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails
become thoughtful. Our first questions about the value of
a book, of a human being, or a musical composition are:
Can they walk? Even more, can they dance?

Whatever we may think of the Romantic vocabulary, which Nietzsche employs here with mischie-

vous irony, we are surely right to believe that he

intends to set a high standard for the scholarly work.
I am inclined to agree with him that even a book
of scholarship should be able to dance, but I dont
think he means here only that scholarship should
be, by some widely accepted standard, well written.
That is, I dont think he is raising the question of
style. Later in the aphorism, he goes on to express
his preference for the scholar over the belletrist, the
man of letters, in other words, the literary stylist:
No, my scholarly friends, I bless you even for your
hunched backs. And for despising, as I do, the men
of letters and culture parasites. . . . And because your
sole aim is to become masters of your craft, with reverence for every kind of mastery and competence, and
with uncompromising opposition to everything that
is semblance, half-genuine, dressed up, virtuosolike,
demagogical, or histrionic in litteris et artibusto everything that cannot prove to you its unconditional
probity in discipline and prior training.

If Nietzsche wants to praise scholars, he also invokes the familiar, risible image of the scholar as
a creature of the inkwell, with pinched belly, his
head bowed low over the paperin which case we
are quickly finished with his book, too! . . . This was
what I felt just now, Nietzsche writes, as I closed a
very decent scholarly bookgratefully, very gratefully, but also with a sense of relief (322).
I offer Nietzsches words as the best testament
to the ideal of scholarship, as well as the best testimony to the existence of an enduring problem
for the readers of scholarly writing, the problem
indicated by Nietzsches confession that he feels

The author is Silver Professor of English and former chair of

the English department at New York University. A version of
the article was presented at the November 2008 Forum on Academic Publishing in the Humanities at Cornell University.
ADE Bulletin, No. , Fall


justified in reading some scholarly booksperhaps most scholarly booksas quickly as possible.
I dont imagine that any of us would dispute this
testimony; we all know how much scholarship
there is to read and how little time we have for
any one specimen of the genre. I suspect that most
scholarship is read gratefully, but quickly. The
stubbornly empirical question of how fast scholars
read is at the center of my concern here; from this
question a host of other questions radiate outward,
questions about the mutually determining relation
between how scholars write and how scholars read.
The mutual determination of writing and reading
also bears directly on the history of academic publication, which is formed and deformed by the demand on scholars to publish their research.
For the moment, I defer the question of publication, in order to situate my inquiry in relation to the long history of scholarly reading and
writing. I hope to return by way of this detour to
the problem of how scholars read today and why
the question of how slowly or quickly they read
is material to the shape and future of academic
publication. But first, I beg my readers patience
and ask them to accompany me on this detour.
Scholarly reading and writing belong to a history
of diverse reading practices, constituting the history of literacy as such, which predates by many
centuries the emergence of print culture, including the rise of university presses. In the premodern
world, the possession of letters was rare enough to
entitle its possessor also to the name of scholar. In
some societiesancient China, for examplethe
literate and the scholars were one and the same.
In ancient Rome, there was a more varied reading
public, though it would be difficult to guess at its
size and even more difficult to locate the scholarly
function in a subgroup of the literati. The social
function of the literati varied thereafter with time
and place, but my story really begins with Western
societies after the fall of the Roman Empire, when
the identity of the scholar turned on the possession
of Latin literacy. Later, to a somewhat lesser extent,
Greek literacy became a requisite for scholarship,
but it is mainly Latin literacy that formed the basis
of scholarly identity during the medieval era, usually fused with the function of the cleric.
The emergence of a new, vernacular literacy in
the later Middle Ages was the crucial condition for
the specialization of a scholarly fraction within the
generality of those who could read (whether Latin

or a vernacular language); it was also a condition

for decoupling literacy from clerical identity. After
the Renaissance, the identity of the scholar was defined at its basis by the distinction between Latin
and vernacular literacy. Knowledge of Latin was
the entrance requirement for the three great professions of theology, medicine, and law, because all
the literature of these professions was written in
Latin. This new arrangement in turn endured for
centuries, for as long as it took the empire of Latin
to fall, a millennium and a half after Rome itself
(see Wacquet). The final demise of the educational
system oriented to classical literacy at the end of
the nineteenth century necessitated a thorough redefinition of scholarly identity. At this point, we
can speak of a new kind of scholar, one who claims
that identity not on the basis of Latin literacy but
by virtue of exhibiting a new kind of professionalism in the domain of knowledge work. Scholarship
in our time is signaled not by the fact of literacy
at all, which is assumed as a general franchise, but
rather by a special kind of linguistic difference,
cultivated within the vernacular. No longer locked
up in the cabinet of Latin, scholarly writing has
nonetheless become alienated from the language of
the laity and from the practice of lay reading.

Our understanding of how scholars read, then, depends on acknowledging the divergence between
scholarly and lay modes of reading. This divergence
was correlated with a diversification in genres of
writing, but it would be a mistake to identify
scholarly modes of reading as simply the effect of
new genres of scholarly writing. In fact, scholarship
was of great interest to lay readers for much of the
period between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries and was produced in styles of writing that
solicited lay reading. This condition still obtains to
some small extent, but paradoxically more in the
sciences than in the humanities. Because the language of the sciences is innately inaccessible, the
discoveries of science lend themselves to a thorough
translation into the popular idiom for the purpose
of dissemination. By contrast the language of humanities scholarship is innately closer to vernacular
usage, but over time has acquired a lexicon of technical terms and a repertoire of syntactical features
that strike the lay reader as rebarbative.


A truly representative account of the history of

reading practices is beyond my scope or competence, but it is necessary here only to give a sense of
the universe of possibilities to which the distinction
between lay and professional reading belongs. The
most crucial as well as the most disputed argument
concerning the history of lay reading was proposed
by Rolf Engelsing in 1974 with reference to research he conducted in Germany and on which he
based his famous distinction between intensive
and extensive reading. These two terms seem to
be straightforward but raise a number of puzzling
questions. Engelsing defined intensive reading, supposed to be dominant before the later eighteenth
century, as the practice of immersion in the text,
a deliberately slow mode of reading and rereading,
often directed toward verbatim memorization. In
the premodern era, this mode of reading was especially characteristic of clerical or monastic culture,
which adopted a ritual orientation to the text as an
object of physical rarity and metaphysical authority. All books worthy to be chained to the desks of
the monastic scriptorium were read in this fashion,
usually aloud, in a manner indistinguishable from
prayer. The Bible, of course, stood at the apex of
this textual accumulation, dispensing its aura of
scripturality potentially to all writing.
The emergence of new forms of vernacular writing (especially romances), the late medieval surge
in the dissemination of manuscript books, and the
dissemination of printed books after the invention
of movable typethese are familiar events that
raise difficult questions about how early modern
readers, especially lay readers, differed from their
clerical predecessors. We know that in fact the
world of early modern reading retained too much
of the character of earlier reading practiceseven
the practice of memorizationto fall on the near
side of a hypothetical reading revolution, defined by the emergence of extensive reading. It was
only with the explosion of new print matter in the
later eighteenth century, especially periodicals and
novels, that reading was supposed to have definitively speeded up. Readers were said to consume
ever larger quantities of reading material, with the
aim of diversion and without necessarily intending
to memorize what they read. This extensive mode
of reading was facilitated by increasing recourse
to silent reading, as well as by the portability and
reader-friendly format of printed texts. These books
were often published in octavo and duodecimo

sizes, easily secreted into a pocket, thus making it

possible to read in almost any location. Although
poetry too became portable, it may well have remained exceptional for its capacity to sustain practices of intensive reading, especially memorization.
But poetry alsothink of Scott or Byroncould
be consumed as a popular entertainment. Byrons
long poems were as eagerly anticipated and perhaps
as rapidly consumed as the novels of the period.
It would be an understatement to say that Engelsings thesis has been attacked, but also, I think,
an overstatement to say that it has been thoroughly
refuted. Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier
argue in their introduction to )JTUPSZPG3FBEJOHJO
the West that modes of intensive reading survived
the so-called reading revolution of the later eighteenth century and that even novels were read and
reread, memorized, cited and recited (25). They
are thinking here of novels with hugely important cultural roles, such as Pamela or The Sorrows
of Young Werther. And yet these counterexamples
do not seem to me to establish the prevalence of
intensive reading for the novel and certainly not
the memorization of whole novels. Engelsings
distinction is crude but might be calibrated more
precisely to define differences between reading
practices specific to different forms of writing. The
novel in that case can be seen as the advance guard
of the reading revolution, poetry the rear guard.
The ambiguous effect of the simultaneous circulation of residual and emergent literary forms is suggested in an interesting passage of Jane Austens
Persuasion, where Anne Elliot and Captain Benwick recite memorized passages of Byron to each
other. Benwicks more morose recitation of poems
touching on bereaved lovers elicits this silent response from Miss Elliot: she thought it was the
misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed
by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the
strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly,
were the very feelings which ought to taste it but
sparingly (85). In this passage we might glimpse
the difference of which I am speaking between
modes of reading and so avoid relegating all reading after the eighteenth century to the extensive
mode. A version of this point is advanced in another essay in Cavallo and Chartiers anthology, by
Reinhard Wittmann, who argues that we can indeed speak of a reading revolution, but one specific
to the genres of extensive reading, namely periodicals and novels (304). Wittmann resurrects


Ian Watts observation in F3JTFPGUIF/PWFM that

novels encouraged a rapid, inattentive, almost unconscious kind of reading habit (49).
Cavallo and Chartier credit Wittmanns argument up to a point, but clearly with some hesitation about endorsing the notion of a reading
revolution. The validity of this concept, however, is
less important to my argument than is recovering
a sense of how diverse reading practices could be,
especially along the axis of speed. It would not be
difficult to show that the difference between scholarly reading and lay reading can be defined in part
by location along this axis. Literary scholars read
novels intensively, though in a manner unlike that
of earlier readers of scripture. Intensive reading in
the scholarly context is defined by the practice of
rereading, or, in the disciplines favorite term of
art, close reading. Scholars may find that as a
result of this procedure, they come to know certain texts or passages by heart, but memorization
is rarely the intention of close reading.
Setting aside for the moment the question of
how close reading might define a new intensive
form of reading, I return to another of Cavallo
and Chartiers objections to Engelsings thesis,
the fact that extensive reading existed long before
the reading revolution of circa 1800. Cavallo and
Chartier point to a kind of extensive reading cultivated by none other than the scholars themselves.
They invoke especially the humanists and early
philologists, who devised ways to assimilate and
organize large quantities of textual material, much
larger than the number of texts dealt with by their
medieval predecessors. Even though their editorial
and interpretive tasks might involve close examination of minute textual details, these ends also
required the collocation of many texts by rapid
means, for which new techniques of reading were
devised, even new instruments for reading. Cavallo
and Chartier remind us, for example, of the book
wheel, the handy contraption for holding upright a
number of different books; by spinning the wheel
around the humanist scholar could move rapidly
from one text to another, comparing passages (25).
Here was a mode of extensive reading designed to
complement intensive reading. Both intensive and
extensive modes are to be found at the scene of
humanist reading, which required the scholar to
slow down or speed up at different moments, for
different purposes. In adopting this flexible mode
of reading, alternately accelerating and decelerat-

ing, the humanist scholars established the basic

repertoire of scholarly reading practices still prevalent today.
The distinctions I make here are clearer in retrospect than perhaps they were to readers in the early
modern period. Francis Bacon famously remarks
on the implied difference in speed of reading in a
passage often quoted out of context:
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed,
and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some
books are to be read only in parts; others to be read,
but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly and
with diligence and attention.

This passage seems to point to reading practice as

determined by the quality of the book. But the context is Bacons essay, Of Studies, and the reader
here is assumed to be a scholar, presumptively
literate in the classical and modern languages. In
setting out his typology of fast and slow reading,
Bacon is not necessarily anticipating the kind of
reading solicited by the novel or by newspapers.
Cavallo and Chartier call the accelerated mode
of humanist reading a version of extensive reading,
but it is not the same as what Engelsing calls by that
name, much less what Ian Watt describes as inattentive reading (54). The humanists extensive
reading rather entailed a special kind of attention.
This activitywhat we now call researchhas its
pleasures, to be sure, but these pleasures are not
like those of novel reading, best indicated by the
notion of the page-turner. If there was pleasure in
research for the humanist, this pleasure, however
great, was subordinate to the joy of immersive reading in the great works of antiquity, these still often
committed to memory. The function of memorization changed over the succeeding centuries, in
many more ways than I can remark here. But let
me invoke just one literary witness to this change,
from Stendhals F3FEBOEUIF#MBDL, published
right in the middle of the reading revolution. The
hero of his novel, Julien Sorel, is a would-be cleric
who dazzles his auditors with his flawless recitations from memory; he recites not the Bible but
Vergil and Horace. Further, he confesses to know
nothing of Byron or other contemporary poets,
and we are informed by the narrator that he would
probably think it absurd to commit their works to
memory, as did Austens Anne Elliot. Yet Sorels
feats of memorization are without doubt testimony
to a contemporary practice of memorization, the


social function of which (its capacity to dazzle) is

structurally related to the prevalence of the very
literary form in which Stendhal is writing.
Scholarly reading and lay reading have both intensive and extensive modalities, depending on the
task or pleasure in view. For the modern scholar,
reading in the conduct of research can be pleasurable, but it might also be painful, intensive because
laborious. The reading of archival materials has its
own protocols, which involve a high degree of flexibility in speed, an ability to read alternately very
quickly and very slowly. In the discipline of literary study, scholarly reading is also complicated by
a certain historical irony precipitated by the emergence of lay reading: the object of study for literary scholars is often the very kind of text intended
mainly to give pleasure, for example, the novels
at the forefront of the reading revolution. But for
this kind of text to become the object of study,
the scholar must first, so to speak, alienate her or
his own practice of lay reading by deliberately decelerating its rapid, or inattentive, pace. This is a
complex process indeed, because it assumes that
lay reading is the very condition of scholarly reading, that practice against which scholarly reading
defines itself. For this reason scholarly reading can
be said to preserve within it an encysted form of
lay reading, a necessary recollection of the pleasure and rapidity of lay reading. This requirement
is probably true of most scholarship dealing with
textual materials, even nonliterary materials. Historians, for example, must alienate the lay reading
of informational materials such as newspapers and
periodicals; these must originally have been consumed extensively.
In the humanities now, the intensive mode of
scholarly reading aims at analysis or interpretation,
but never memorization, which has simply disappeared as a vital practice of reading. This practice
has also disappeared from lay reading. The decline
of memorization is more consequential than is
generally supposed, as its absence from the repertoire of reading practices aggravates the asymmetry between lay and scholarly reading. Lay reading
is often at a loss for developing intensive modes,
especially those that involve the exercise of interpretation. It is important to recall here that memorization once tacitly incorporated interpretation, as
part of the cognitive labor of reciting a memorized
work, once a mainstay of literary pedagogy. Recitation conveys interpretive choices, as all actors

know. But interpretation has now been relegated

to the literary professoriat, and strongly resisted by
the laity as an encroachment on the pleasure of its
extensive reading. At the same time, scholarly reading is defined by the explicit exhibition of its interpretive reading, as writing and as publication.

Over the last century, the difference between lay

reading and scholarly reading has been institutionalized in the sorting out of trade and university
presses. It is not especially problematic, in my view,
that humanities scholarship is seldom read by lay
readers, however much we wish it to be otherwise.
We cannot expect that an essay on how Gabriel
Harvey read Livy will appeal to more than a very
small nonscholarly audience, even though the essay to which I refer happens to be by one of the
more elegant writers in scholarship today, Anthony
Grafton. That scholarship is read mainly by scholars is an expression of the same division of labor
and differentiation of social spheres that characterizes modernity as such. The more problematic fact
is that scholarship is not often read very enthusiastically or intensively by scholars themselves, as
Nietzsche already hinted in the 1870s. This fact
is harder to explain, because scholarly writing assumes the preeminent value of intensive reading
and constitutes the very record of this reading modality. I turn now to the question of how scholars
read scholarship, in the hope that the historical
framework I have constructed will help us understand what troubles academic publication today.
A clue to the analysis of this problem lies in the
range of extensive reading techniques employed by
scholars. These techniques were developed early on
to deal with archival materials, some of which are
innately dull and repetitious. The rapid mode of
reading used to assimilate archival text is, let me
underscore, quite unlike the rapid reading of novels and only slightly more like the reading of periodicals or newspapers. The lay reader approaches
the latter, informational forms of writing with the
technique that I call, after current usage, browsing,
by which I mean that the reader is not ordinarily
engaged in searching for particular items. On the
contrary, the reader is open to whatever strikes and
holds his or her attention, for however long. The
scholar approaches archival materials with a more


directed technique, which by contrast we can call

scanning, again borrowing this term from current
usage but coaxing it into a more technical or precise meaning. The technique of scanning can be organized, alert to keywords, names, dates, or other
features of a text. This technique is a form of attention, even heightened attention, although the scholarly reader might ignore the continuous meaning of
a text, deferring comprehension until some textual
signal brings the scanning process to a temporary
halt and initiates a more intensive reading.
The scanning technique is of enormous utility as
a means of dealing with large quantities of text. The
fact of quantity is an intractable empirical given
that must be managed by a determined method
if analysis or interpretation is to be undertaken. I
dont suppose that any scholars among us would
object to the extensive mode of scholarly reading in the context of research, even though we all
know that the same technique that makes research
possible also makes it fallible. At some point reading must be decelerated for the purpose of a more
analytic reading, which aims to correct distortions
produced by scanning. For this reason, it has to
be admitted that machine reading, which already
successfully functions as a prosthesis for the cognitive skill of scanning (as in keyword searches), will
not anytime soon relieve scholars of having to learn
when and how to decelerate reading or to commence the slow labor of interpretation. The gap in
cognitive level between the keyword search and interpretation is for the present immeasurable, an inherent limitation of scanning. Moreover, it always
was and always will be possible for other scholars
to read what we miss or decelerate at different sites
in the archive and thus arrive at an interpretation
that challenges our own. Scholarship is founded on
the virtual infinity of the readable textual universe,
and that is the nature of the game.
When we turn to the scholarly reading of scholarship, a new set of problems and questions arise.
Here too we face the problem of a virtual infinity of texts and therefore the necessity of extensive
reading. But whereas the archive seems to reward
our cognitive limitations by allowing us to see
something differently than it was seen before, the
quantity of scholarly writing presses upon us with
more ambiguous effect. In part, this is the result
of an accumulation that now defies mastery and
necessitates increasing specialization as a way of
reducing the volume of scholarship one needs to

read in order to assert mastery in a given field. But

even these specializations, tributaries to the great
river of scholarship, have swollen into great rivers
themselves. I began my scholarly career specializing in the Renaissance, with a particular interest
in Milton. But I have long since abandoned trying
to keep up even with Milton scholarship, if that
means reading all the books and articles published
every year on the poet. To those scholars who are
happy with a specialization so limited, I would say,
as Keats said of Milton himself, life to him would
be death to me (379; letter of 24 September 1819).
I would argue in any case that too-narrow specialization results in poor scholarship, for lack of the
cross-fertilization provided by broader reading.
The best scholarship is often produced at the interface between self-limited mastery and the most
far-fetched reading. Mastery over the mere accumulation of specialized scholarship by contrast
comes up against a principle of marginal utility,
as it becomes more and more difficult to persuade
oneself to read one more book on Milton and the
Puritan rebellion as carefully as its author might
like it to be read. By virtue (or default) of having
merely human capacities, we must read quickly, if
only to allow time to read more broadly.
Much scholarship is read in a default mode that
is distinct from scanning and can be called simply skimming, again a term we must borrow from
common usage. This technique is not inherently
objectionable; but if the recourse to skimming is a
necessary response to the accumulation of scholarship, it also gestures toward the many works we
have no time to read at all. The growing number
of these works calls scholarly publication itself into
question. Editors of university presses point to the
poor sales of many scholarly books as evidence that
these books are not being read or are being read
by too few scholars to justify minimal print runs.
This testimony, unfortunately, does not settle the
empirical question of how many books fall into
the limbo of the unread, much less the economic
question of what number of readers justifies publication. All that we do know for certain is that the
number of scholarly works increases continually. At
all times historically, the accumulation of text has
been experienced as unprecedented, which is to say
that with each incremental increase in accumulation, new challenges confront the practice of scholarly reading. At present, we can say with assurance
that the accumulation of scholarship in any given


field is beyond the capacity of any reader to master

and therefore that the fact of accumulation has effects that are distinct from what we can call the
progress of scholarship, the record of discoveries,
new arguments, methodological innovations.
Scholarship might be said to propagate scholarship, by provoking response and further inquiry.
But this generative principle does not entirely
explain the accumulation of books that may be
unread or read by very few. In addition to the absolute growth of the professoriat, accumulation
has also been driven by the system of academic
advancement, which is founded on an imperative
to publish. There is no question that both the demand to publish and the demand to keep up with
published works in ones field have been escalating
in the postwar decades, for reasons documented by
Richard Lewontin in an essay entitled The Cold
War and the Transformation of the Academy.
Lewontin demonstrates that the rapid expansion of
the research professoriat was the result of a change
in the social valuation of research occasioned by
cold war politics. I am immediately concerned not
with the particulars of this argument but rather
with its implications for the humanities professoriat or scholarship as such. The expansion of the
postwar university was driven by investment in
science, which entailed the reduction of teaching
commitments for scientists to permit more time
for research. In the interest of equity, university
administrations extended this reduction to humanities professors. University administrations
understood this reduction contractually, as the
right to demand more publication from humanities professors in exchange for reduced teaching
loads. Thus was born our current tenure and promotion system, which in most universities and
many colleges demands more publication than in
the previous history of American education. In
one sense we might regard this historical accident
as a great boon to scholarship, a boon that made
possible the proliferation and growth of university
presses. Yet the geometric increase in the quantity
of scholarship also put a new kind of pressure on
the reading of scholarship and ultimately on the
social value of scholarly writing or the capacity of
this writing to recommend itself in contexts other
than bureaucratic advancement. In the remainder
of this essay, I point out some of the consequences
of this transformative development for the reading
and dissemination of scholarship.

With incremental increases in the quantity

of scholarship, scholars have been compelled to
adopt the techniques of extensive reading employed for archival material as the default mode
for reading scholarship. Extensive reading can be
complemented by other longstanding nonlinear
techniques. Scholarly books are often read from the
peripheral matter inward, from the table of contents, the index, the notes, the introduction and
conclusion, then to the chapters themselves, some
of which might be read closely, others scanned, others skipped altogether. Scholarly books are pulled
apart like the Sunday paper. I would not say that
this is a bad thing, that all books ought to be read
whole from beginning to end, even scholarly books.
The reality of how scholars read, however, raises
the question of whether the writing of scholarship
might be retroengineered from the endpoint of the
reading situation. Such a transformation is already
occurring with online venues, although without as
yet any effect on the bureaucratic demand for the
production of paper monographs. Let me hasten to
say that I am not arguing here for the abolition of
the scholarly book in favor of an electronic alternative. On the contrary, I would rather see a diverse
system of scholarly publication that preserves as
one of its possibilities the book that solicits an intensive reading, no matter how difficult its prose
and no matter how long it happens to be. But that
possibility is just what the tendency of academic
publication is militating against. Despite the dominance of monograph publication, a new norm for
the scholarly book is emerging, a book that is short
(about 150 pages), with few footnotes, and these
dismissed to the end matter. The dissemination of
the new form has been hastened by the adoption of
the social science citation method in many publication venues for humanities. This method of citation
has the usual effect of reducing the number of footnotes altogether, presumably on behalf of making
scholarly writing easier to readthat is, easier to
read more quickly. This kind of monograph in my
view concedes too much to the prevalence of extensive reading; these books beg to be skimmed. Such
congenitally ephemeral scholarship no longer really
needs the shell of the paper monograph and might
just as well take some other form.
Ideally, the system of academic publication
should give us fewer but more diverse monograph
publications. In the system we have, our reading
of most scholarship has become increasingly more


extensive and often wholly mediated by others.

The intensive reading of whole books of scholarship has been relegated largely to those writing
on very similar subjects or reviewers for journals
or those who read for evaluative purposes such as
tenure or promotion. In the spirit of Nietzsches
confession, I must admit that I too read few whole
books of literary scholarship, and those mostly because I am reviewing them for promotion. I also
find few books that reward intensive reading. I
have to wonder, then, whether the system of academic publication, as the servant of administrative
demands for ever greater volumes of publication,
has resulted in poorer scholarship, books that, to
recycle Nietzsches metaphor, cannot dance.
There is nothing to lose at this point in questioning the demand for more publication that dominates the bureaucratic organization of scholarship,
reducing scholarly writing often to a measure of
productivity. Perhaps the greater harm in the proliferation of unread or casually read scholarship,
however, is the devaluation of teaching, both as the
means for transmission of long-standing knowledge
and as the first venue for disseminating new knowledge. Would it perhaps be healthier in some ways
if we scholars taught more and wrote less? When I
have tendered this immodest proposal to colleagues,
I have been greeted with the stunned silence reserved for the most intolerable social impropriety.
Such discomfort betrays what we have repressed so
successfully, the origin of the current system of academic publication and advancement in a cold war
contract that redistributed labor time from teaching to research. If, for very good reasons of equity
among the disciplines, it is hardly feasible today to
reverse this distribution of labor, it costs little to inquire into the historical effects of the arrangement.
This little is worth risking if historical recollection
helps us understand the deflation in the social value
of scholarly writing as inversely related to its inflation as bureaucratic measure of productivity. At the
moment, the fact of deflation is registered symptomatically in the complaint of authors that no one
reads my books or of editors that scholarly books
sell so few copies, both statements that are useless as
analysis if also revealing as testimony to widespread
unease with the state of scholarship.
Another effect of the geometric increase in scholarly publication during the postwar period is the
pressure it exerts on graduate education, which has
evolved to facilitate early publication and which

thus links publication to employment as well as to

promotion. Those of us who teach graduate students know that the conceptualization of a dissertation project is constrained not by the imagination
of the student but by the requisites of a job market
that ruthlessly rejects scholarship that does not
conform to current models of organization and address current topics. This constraint, which forces
us to regard every dissertation as the draft of a first
book, also narrows the scope of graduate education,
in deference to a specious norm of professionalization. Graduate programs now turn out some PhDs
who have been trained very narrowly in the novel
and in literature after 1800 and who see little reason to waste time acquiring a broader knowledge
base. This highly specialized training, which may
well expedite publication, also virtually ensures a
limited readership for young scholars first books,
paradoxically undermining the very purpose of
publication. Over the long term, the imperative
of rapid professionalization has effectively remade
the discipline of literary study by contracting its
core generic and historical domain to narrative of
the post-1800 era. Resisting this contraction of the
field in no way implies a retrograde elevation of
poetry over the novel or nostalgia for some more
ideal era of the discipline. On the contrary, it can
be argued that a broader historical knowledge base
can only deepen the interest for all of us in scholarship focused on modern narrative forms and perhaps also expand the readership for scholarship in
earlier periods and in nonnarrative genres.
If the difficulties consequent on the differentiation of scholarly writing from the textual world of
lay literacy long predate the postwar period, those
difficulties have been greatly exacerbated in recent
decades. Historical tendencies are seldom successfully reversed by an act of will, but they can be critiqued and they can be ameliorated by good policy.
The most desirable model for scholarly production
today is surely one in which scholarship takes diverse forms; therefore it behooves us to resist the homogenization of the monograph in response to the
bogey of the market. Obviously our false expediency
has not worked out well for the market in scholarly
monographs, where we see demand fall despite the
extraordinary responsiveness of scholars to what they
suppose the market wants. To put this argument in a
different, more spiritual idiom, the tendency toward
the one-size monograph (with all the other formal
and topical limitations of that model) constrains the


freedom of scholarship and turns scholars away from

promising but unprofitable lines of inquiry. Still, we
need not assert that all scholarly books must be written in order to be read intensively. The point is rather
to preserve a place in the market for some scholarly
books that might be read intensively by more scholars than typically do so today. The greater the proportion of such books, the stronger the discipline. It
may also happen that because these books are more
rewarding to read, they will even sell better.
Most scholarship, as Nietzsche saw, will solicit a
less than intensive reading. Since his time, we have
seen a further, geometric accumulation of scholarship, the effect of which has been to transform
scholarship itself into another archive. This is the
last consequence of the postwar contract to which
I draw attention. Much scholarship today is almost
instantly archived, less read than held in reserve for
possible future consultation. Geoffrey Bowker has
commented interestingly on this fate of scholarship
in his recent work Memory Practices in the Sciences,
in which he confesses, I share the academic passion
for photocopying and filing away articles, which I
have no real intention of ever reading. This is honorable testimony, like Nietzsches, and it occasions
an important reflection. Bowker, like most of us,
finds himself constructing an archive of scholarly
writing in lieu of reading. Much of this work will
perhaps never be read, but that is the condition of
the archive. Some items in the archive of scholarship
might someday be consulted, but we cannot know at
present who will find what items to be of what use.
Only a few works of scholarship at present are
likely to rise above archival status. In the meantime, we might consider the possibility that some
of this scholarship might take some form other
than the paper monograph, which does not always
justify its length, its expense, or the demand it
makes on the readers time. If we have overvalued
the scholarly monograph for reasons having too
little to do with scholarship itself, it follows that
many scholarly books today might just as well take
some other form, as journal articles or as writing
in yet undefined electronic genres. One especially
unfortunate consequence of the bureaucratic inflation of the scholarly book is that the long-standing
form of the stand-alone essay has lapsed into an
undervalued vessel for scholarly writing that solicits intensive reading. I suspect that valuable arguments lost in books might be found again in
essays, which can be read intensively in far less

time than a book. In this case, as with every form

of scholarship, the success with which we confront the challenge of accumulation depends on
our ability to manage the clock time of scholarly
reading. The worst case scenario for academic publication today is one in which all scholarly books
are read quickly, with little pleasure in writing that
does not dance and little gratitude for the manifest
effort it takes to make a scholarly argument.

1. In an important address to the Association of American
University Presses, Publication and the Future of Knowledge, Andrew Abbott suggests that this demand may not in
fact have been met by the professoriat in the aggregate. He
cites several studies, concluding that from the 1920s to the
1970s the number of journals and books as a ratio of professors has remained nearly constant. Or, to put this point
another way, the amount of publication in the average scholarly career is about the same for the period under study. The
research cited, however, leaves many questions unanswered,
beginning with the rate of publication for the period after
1975. In order to square this research with Lewontons observations, we would have to hypothesize that the demand
for increased publication did not have a powerful effect on
humanities scholars until the later 1970s. That decade also
marks the decline of the job market, which suggests that the
buyers market enforced a demand that was much harder
to enforce previously. The evidence of increased scholarly
productivity since the 1970s seems to me undeniable but
most crucially in connection with tenure and promotion.
It might well be the case that productivity tends to fall off
after tenure. If so, lifetime productivity is less the issue here
than the linking of demand for publication with the earliest
moments in a scholarly career, when a scholars knowledge
base is smaller and the conditions of writing more hurried.
2. Abbott remarks that many citations in scholarly works
these days give no page references, even in sources hundreds
of pages long. Such casual citation, if it does not betray the
work cited as unread, suggests that there has been over the
last fifty years a substantial decline in the seriousness with
which scholars are reading each others work. This practice
also tends to restrict the horizon of scholarship to the recent
past and to reinforce the tendency of intellectual fashion to
dominate citation. In an interesting study of citation patterns
in literary scholarship, Jennifer Wolfe Thompson concludes
that citation falls off rapidly for scholarly works older than
ten years, and nearly to zero for works fifty years old (135).

Works Cited
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Chicago, n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2009.

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Lewontin, R. C. The Cold War and the Transformation of
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