A couple of books recently entered this house (actually, books enter this house on a regular basis, and few of them ever leave), and I was struck by the contrast in their style. I have mentioned my reading tastes before: Pamela Dean, Lois McMaster Bujold, Amanda Cross, Angela Thirkell, C. J. Cherryh, and so on. But when I’m not reading mindless fluff, I’m usually deep into something peer-reviewed. I have little patience with jargon-filled obfuscation, but on the other hand, I do expect serious reading to have serious vocabulary.
So when Sir John brought home Willpower (Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney), which has been well-reviewed in such august places as the New York Times, I was surprised by its chatty tone and pop-culture references. Here’s the first paragraph of chapter one, in its entirety: “If you have a casual acquaintance with Amanda Palmer’s music, if you know about her banned-in-Britain abortion song or the ‘Backstabber’ video of her running down a hall naked holding an upraised knife while chasing the equally naked guy in lipstick who was just in bed with her, you probably don’t think of her as a paragon of self-control.”
I have no idea who Amanda Palmer is, nor does this (what I take to be an appeal to popular taste) want to make me read on. I was hoping for a serious treatment of willpower, which is what the reviews led me to expect.
Now, for contrast, here’s the first paragraph of A New Stoicism (Lawrence C. Becker) acquired at the same bookstore, same shopping trip: “After five hundred years of prominence in Greek and Roman antiquity, stoic ethics was pillaged by theology and effaced by evangelical and imperial Christianity. A few stoic philosophers survived, most of them by providing analgesics for use in pastoral counseling, the military, and what then passed for medicine and psychotherapy. Only those shards of our doctrines were widely seen during the Middle Ages, and the term stoic came to be applied merely to people who used remedies. This confusion persists.”
I would have expected serious non-fiction to sound more like example two than like example one. In fact, I am amazed that Willpower has had such good reviews, when it seems to be written for people with a sixth-grade reading ability. But if that’s what we’re reduced to, then no wonder my students don’t know the words “bough,” “clad,” and “boisterous.”