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Expanding the American Mind

Expanding the American Mind: Books and the Popularization of Knowledge

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    Expanding the American Mind
    Book Description:

    Over the past fifty years, knowledge of the natural world, history, and human behavior has expanded dramatically. What has been learned in the academy has become part of political discourse, sermons, and everyday conversation. The dominant medium for transferring knowledge from universities to the public is popularization—books of serious nonfiction that make complex ideas and information accessible to nonexperts. Such writers as Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Hawking, Daniel Boorstin, and Robert Coles have attracted hundreds of thousands of readers. As fields such as biology, physics, history, and psychology have changed the ways we view ourselves and our place in the universe, popularization has played an essential role in helping us to understand our world. Expanding the American Mind begins by comparing fiction and nonfiction—their relative respectability in the eyes of reading experts and in the opinions of readers themselves. It then traces the roots of popularization from the Middle Ages to the present, examining changes in literacy, education, and university politics. Focusing on the period since World War II, it examines the ways that curricular reform has increased interest in popularization as well as the impact of specialization and professionalization among the faculty. It looks at the motivations of academic authors and the risks and rewards that come from writing for a popular audience. It also explains how experts write for nonexperts—the rhetorical devices they use and the voices in which they communicate. Beth Luey also looks at the readers of popularizations—their motivations for reading, the ways they evaluate nonfiction, and how they choose what to read. This is the first book to use surveys and online reader responses to study nonfiction reading. It also compares the experience of reading serious nonfiction with that of reading other genres. Using publishers’ archives and editorauthor correspondence, Luey goes on to examine what editors, designers, and marketers in this very competitive business do to create and sell popularizations to the largest audience possible. In a brief afterword she discusses popularization and the Web. The result is a highly readable and engaging survey of this distinctive genre of writing.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-028-4
    Subjects: Sociology, Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. 1-6)

    Francis Bacon knew his books, but he got one thing wrong: knowledge is not power. Thecontrol of knowledgeis power. In any university office one is surrounded by people whose brains are bursting with knowledge yet who have no meaningful power. But people in a position to withhold knowledge are powerful. The intelligence analyst who withholds information from a policymaker, the doctor who fails to explain a diagnosis to a patient, a president who distorts events in speeches to congress or the nation, the corporate executive who misrepresents accounting methods to Wall Street analysts—all of these people are...

    (pp. 7-24)

    When you walk into most public libraries, you come to the Great Divide: fiction is on one side of the building, nonfiction on the other. We all know what fiction is—novels, short stories, works of the imagination. But nonfiction is harder to define because it is everything else, encompassing many different subjects, purposes, and even genres. How can you define a category that includes theEncyclopedia Britannica, The Papers of George Washington, the complete works of Sigmund Freud and Martha Stewart,Java for Dummies, andThe Wicca Cookbook?

    This book is about popularization, a subset of the nonfiction genre:...

    (pp. 25-44)

    Serious nonfiction is commonly called popularization, popular science, popular history, and the like. These words, although useful until recently, are now imprecise because, beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, the borders between the popular and the scholarly shifted. The wordpopularizationis also somewhat loaded with negative connotations. (It could be worse, though: the French call itvulgarisation.) The beginnings of popularization are difficult to date, and the vagaries of its status are hard to fathom.

    It is important, first, to distinguish betweenpopularandpopularized. Popular history and popular literature have been around as long as people...

    (pp. 45-60)

    Since the settling of the American colonies, Americans have valued literacy and education, at least for some members of society. In colonial times, men were far more likely to be literate than women, and whites were far more likely to be literate than Native Americans (most of whose cultural traditions were oral and who did not have written languages) or African Americans. Slaves were rarely taught to read, and as fear of slave rebellion increased, many southern states made it illegal to teach them. Even though this ban was not entirely effective, it certainly prevented most African Americans in those...

    (pp. 61-86)

    A major battle in the culture wars of postwar academe began when C. P. Snow, a scientist and novelist, delivered the Rede Lecture at Cambridge University in 1959. More than fifty years later the title of its first part, “The Two Cultures,” remains part of the vocabulary of every educated person. The differences between the sciences and the humanities continue to be debated: Is one branch of learning more “objective” than the other? Does either lead to truth, or Truth? Is the benchmark of difficulty rocket science orUlysses? Snow was not the first to— the matter had been debated...

    (pp. 87-106)

    John Allen Paulos, a prolific popularizer, once took his colleagues to task: “Mathematicians who don’t deign to communicate their subject to a wider audience are a little like multimillionaires who don’t contribute anything to charity.”¹ His colleagues might defend themselves with a number of explanations: academics are not rewarded for writing popularizations; current scholarship is too complicated to explain to laypeople; it’s toohardto write for nonspecialists—much harder than writing a check to the food bank. How valid are these defenses? How widely are they believed? And what rewards await those who do share their intellectual wealth?


    (pp. 107-146)

    It’s eight o’clock in the evening, and you have just settled into a comfortable chair with a paperback:

    In the early-morning hours of May 16, 1968, Ivy Hodge awoke in her flat on the eighteenth floor of Ronan Point Tower. She had moved into the newly constructed block of apartments in Canning Town, east of London, almost a month to the day earlier. She put on her slippers and dressing gown and went to the kitchen. Her apartment in the southeast corner of the tower consisted of a living room, a bedroom, a kitchen, and a bath, in a compact...

    (pp. 147-168)

    Editors and publishers are often described as gatekeepers, and to aspiring authors this metaphor evokes images of the troll under the bridge who will not let you pass unless you know the magic word, or perhaps the bouncer at a trendy club. To an editor, though, the word has a different meaning. Editors do control the quality of what they publish, but they must open the gates wide to let enough good books through to keep their companies afloat and their jobs secure. Editors are always on the lookout for good manuscripts, promising authors, interesting ideas, and public demand.


  12. 8 WHY WE READ
    (pp. 169-186)

    Reading is a mystery. Sales figures, opinion polls, and library circulation statistics collectively tell us something about who reads and what they read, but they shed little light onwhypeople read or what they experience as they read. Theories abound, offered by disciplines ranging from literary theory to clinical psychology, each supported by credible evidence and most consistent with all of the others, but none of them really answers these central questions. The mystery has many sources. Reading is not a single, straight-forward act but rather a variety of very different activities, each with its own motivation and rewards,...

  13. AFTERWORD: Popularization and the Future of the Book
    (pp. 187-190)

    The twenty-first century arrived in the middle of the “information age,” at a time when many people were convinced that the book was fast becoming a relic of another era. They reasoned that if you want up-to-the-minute news, stock quotations, treatments for a new disease, or directories to anything from arborists to zoos, the web is better than a bound volume. Others complained that the Web contains too much information and that its reliability is questionable. These complaints, however, can be applied with equal accuracy to books: there is no shortage of unnecessary and inaccurate information in ink on paper....

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 191-206)
    (pp. 207-212)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 213-218)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 219-219)