Monday, October 4, 2010

Get an Editor!

Matt Yglesias had an interesting item about Hayek over the weekend.  I read Road to Serfdom back in college, and don't really remember anything beyond what Yglesias and others have said about it...as economics, it isn't much, and as political theory, it's worse.  (Yglesias calls it a "crank political pamphlet," and I'm fine with that).  What Yglesias adds that's interesting, and that I know nothing about, are recommendations for other things Hayek wrote, so click through if you're interested.

Anyway, Yglesias says "Hayek is one of those historically important thinkers who in many ways it’s clearer and easier to read about than to read directly (similarly, I find Keynes’ actual writing incredibly confusing relative to a Krugman or DeLong explanation of one of Keynes’ arguments)," which reminds me of one of my favorite topics: terribly written great books.  My favorite is probably Richard Neustadt's Presidential Power.  Just awful.  The lowlight?  The concepts are terrific, but he gives them nonintuitive, confused names (e.g. "vantage points").  Neustadt says that presidential power is about persuasion, but he doesn't mean the kind of persuasion in which you start out thinking X and, through clever arguments, Barack Obama gets you to think Y; he means either that or bargaining or threats or bringing pressure of various kinds.  But he doesn't really explain that.  Even worse, in each of the updates he published over the years, he added in new terminologies, ignoring the old ones.  The ideas are hard enough for people to accept, since they clash so strongly with the way high schools and reporters teach about the presidency, but getting through the murky prose makes it even worse. 

Other nominations?

14 comments:

  1. Well, I wouldn't expect it to win ('cause it's not actually bad writing), but Kevin Phillip's Wealth and Democracy has some wonderful insights buried beneath mountains of tedious detail. The only way to make sense of it is to read the end of the chapter to see where he's going, then you can pick the thread out of the chapter.

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  2. That’s funny – I actually picked up a copy of the Neustadt book after reading your frequent comments on it, and didn’t think the writing was too bad. He’s no Garry Wills, but a lot of academic writing is egregiously bad and far, far worse than Neustadt’s, IMHO.

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  3. Agree about Neustadt. A lot of theory I find difficult to read, Popper and Kuhn come to mind from their stuff I had to read for scopes and methods class. As do Nietzsche and Foucault.

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  4. Neitzsche and Foucault at least are working against language in interesting ways. I'm not sure what the experience of reading a straightforward, well reasoned and well structured argument from either of them would look like. Probably not very compelling.

    The answer to this question is Kant, hands down winner. The Critique of Pure Reason is just unbelievably brilliant. But it sure is badly written- boring, unclear, and often ambiguous.

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  5. Two ways of responding to Anon -- I sometimes think of this category as "worst written great book not originally written in German". Alternatively: I'm not qualified to say, because for all I know Kant was a brilliant stylist but the translation stinks, or he eludes translation.

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  6. I nominate The Lord of the Rings. Great story, but prodigiously dreadful writing.

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  7. Kant was an atrocious writer, from all accounts. (I don't read German.) Surprised to hear someone mention Nietzsche. He's worth reading, even in translation, for purely literary reasons. His metaphorical ingenuity is unmatched in philosophy. Only a literary powerhouse like Nabokov can compete with him on that front. (Caveat: Thus Spoke Zarathustra is overrated, as both literature and philosophy. Try something like The Gay Science.)

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  8. How about Don Quixote? No one can recall a thing from the entire second half of that work (you know, basically an interminable discussion of Panza's political 'career').

    And yet, there's some amazing stuff in there too. My favorite is Don Quixote criticizing Sancho Panza for his lack of imagination, to which Panza replies:

    "I was born naked, and naked am I now, I neither lose nor win".

    It's pretty much equal parts awesome and awful.

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  9. CSH: WHAT?

    The second half of Don Quixote is the amazing part, where he starts writing hilarious weird fanfic-parody of himself because OTHER people wrote much-worse fanfic of his work and passed it off as a sequel. The weird fake Don Quixote roaming around, Panza getting to run a fiefdom (which i find hilarious, not interminable), and the total mental breakdown of Don Quixote, which I find really poignant. If anything, I think professors these days find a lot more interesting to say about this whole "postmodernism invented before modernism" thing in Quixote rather than the familiar events of the first couple hundred pages.

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  10. I once read that some German philosopher said that he could only read Kant in English translation because it was easier to understand than the original German.

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  11. Anonymous @ 1:45 - I should clarify - Don Quixote is an all-time favorite, mainly because it is, as you note, so often poignant. (The Panza quote is, in my experience, unmatched in its combination of profundity and simplicity).

    But the topic at hand is great writing that is inaccessible to the casual reader. Parodying others' fan fiction is funny, at a certain level, but that's not the "guy walking into Borders looking for a good book" level. The second half of Don Quixote is best processed with a passionate professor, not so much on one's own.

    Which, essentially, makes it a suitable candidate for the discussion here.

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  12. Everyone,

    It didn't occur to me to even consider great, badly written fiction...I would have thought it wasn't possible, although I guess I might think about nominating some of Asimov's Foundation stuff. Also, I really like The Land of Oz, but it's bizarrely poorly written -- significantly worse than at least the rest of the first five or so (I read them to my kids, and LoO was just painful while the rest were fine). Although while I like both, I don't know that they're Great.

    Mostly, though I just wanted to say I'm really enjoying everyone's comments.

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  13. If we're allowing works originally written in German, I have to at least mention Marx. It was painful. I'd say Fichte is the worst hands down, except I never managed to figure out if he was actually saying anything useful.

    Leaving Germany behind, though, I nominate Joseph Campbell's "The Hero With A Thousand Faces". Despite a deep and abiding interest in the topic, I couldn't finish it--and I always finish books. Also coming to mind is Durkheim's "The Division of Labor in Society, which I loved but found almost unbeatably difficult to slog through, and the much less-known "Governing Gaza," by Ilana Feldman--interesting and unique research and analysis, absolutely infuriating writing style.

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  14. My nomination is Rawls, Theory of Justice.

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