The magic of monographs: reading scholarly books for fun

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Nour Aoude, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

Even without the onslaught of a hellish ice front and ear-snapping temperatures of -15 degrees, curling up with a good book can be a great way to spend the winter holidays. This winter, my sage-buds were tingling for a certain approfondissement about the world I lived in. In fact, I wanted to get some facts straight about the history of Islam, particularly the smaller and more mysterious Shi’i branch of the religion. So alongside my usual pilgrimage to Terry Pratchett's endlessly fascinating, but much less spherical, Discworld, I picked up an academic book. Yes, an academic book. Or, perhaps as it is better known in more learnèd circles, a scholarly monograph.

The particular scho-mo in question was Hamid Dabashi’s Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest (Harvard University Press, 2011). As my fingers gently traced the hardcover jacket and I caught a whiff of the fresh, barely-touched, pages, a certain whoosh took me back to those happy university years when I would cram a hundred such pages into my protesting mind cells on a weekly basis. In those days, it was necessary. Anyone who is familiar with university will probably recall the horror of being caught blank in a seminar where your value as a human being hinged on the complex algorithm: 50% participation.

So why, you are probably asking, did I go about it the old school way this time? There is Wikipedia and, more broadly, Google Search. Surely that is an easier way to get some facts straight about the particularities of Shi’i history, thought and practice. I admit that it may have been. But I was not merely looking for facts this holiday. I did not want the definitive “truth” about the topic, or even the conservatively “correct” facts that encyclopedias typically present. I was looking for a challenging journey through a varied terrain of fact, opinion, and descriptive storytelling, prepared by someone who had studied this topic for many years and could give an original, daring perspective.

This is indeed what I got from Dabashi’s Shi’ism (and this is not a book review). The author strung together personal anecdote, ethnographic description and historical narrative in an interesting theoretical framework that made for an intensely personal and memorable read. The book did not merely relay Shi’i history; it prodded, probed and rethought our interpretation of Shi’ism. Something new and original had been said about the topic. I did not merely learn--I witnessed ideas becoming. Shi’ism, unlike a Wikipedia article, is a book that will stay with me for a long time, in the same way that a Discworld novel does. Its characters, like the Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad or the young revolutionary Ahmad Batebi, are as good as any Rincewood, Twoflower, or Luggage.

All too often, academics assume that only their peers and students will read their books. So they end up, for the most part, writing the sort of book that only their peers or students would ever consider reading. But there is something to be said about reaching an audience of “normal” people like me. It is vital for a healthy, democratic society that we adopt the same kind of careful, critical thinking often confined to academia. In between watching CNN and checking our Twitter feeds, we need to focus and engage with complex and original ideas. Scho-mos, I think, should be for everyone. So academics, please write them well. Make them personal, fun and accessible! And if you can throw in a cowardly wizard and walking luggage, that might not be so bad.