Sunday, June 01, 2008

My Sunday Feeling

As I said earlier in the week I was asked to contribute to today's article in the Editorial section of the Democrat-Gazette about "the worst books of 2008." As I stated in my contribution to the piece, I can't say that I read anything that was "bad." But then again, unlike some people, I don't stick with a book I'm not particularly enjoying. Well, not unless I'm getting paid to do it.

Unlike movies, I think it is pretty hard to stumble into a bad book. I don't really know why that is. I think on a certain level it is easier to get a movie done than a book published. I mean, porn is proof of that. Having said that, I am certain, based upon reviews I have read, that the "Left Behind" series of books are absolute drivel. Not that I would have any interest in that sort of literature in the first place. By the same token, the sort of person who likes that sort of thing would certainly have no use in the body of work by Garry Wills. So it's apples and oranges.

While I didn't read any bad books as such I did read one work that made me want to sew my eyes shut by the time I was through with it. Why I volunteered myself to edit a friend's Masters thesis is beyond me. Actually, I know why I did it. It is for the same reason that has traditionally led to most of the trouble in my life: the author is an attractive woman.

My friend is, I suppose, a linguist and is fluent in about 5 languages. The thesis was a historical overview of "Teaching English as a Second Language" as it is has evolved in this country. As you might have surmised by now, I knew absolutely nothing about the subject matter at hand. And neither do you. My lack of expertise made my task only moderately more difficult. My nodding acquaintance with the English language is what held me back.

I am not unfamiliar with the use of technical language. I have, after all, read banking regulations. I have savored the delights of the United States Bankruptcy Code. However, my general training in arcana did not adequately prepare me for the task of editing a thesis that was aimed at those who toil in the grove of academe.

My friend is brilliant, articulate and funny. You couldn't tell it from her first draft. The thesis was turgid, resplendent with what I thought were mostly redundant citations and heavily reliant on hypersyllabic words where simplicity would have done just as well. " Here is where I can help this girl out" I thought to myself as I put the red pencil to that son-of-a-bitch. After I had done my work, I e-mailed the draft back to her. I had no sooner pushed the send button than my cell phone went off.

PH: What did you do to my draft?

ME: I fixed it.

PH: But it's all different now.

ME: I know. I think it reads much better now.

PH: You don't understand. This is academic writing. They like it when you use high-falutin' language and a zillion footnotes.

ME: But it is unreadable.

PH: I know. But that is the style my advisors prefer. I know my audience.

ME: But that's insane.

PH: Agreed. It's also beside the point. Look, from here on out, you just make sure there's nothing glaringly outside the laws of the English language and leave the stylistic points to me.

And so that's what I did for the rest of the month. Phrases that would cause Orwell to put a gun in his mouth were left in. Words like "disusetude" did not feel the lash of the red pencil. Pages consisting of naught but footnotes didn't receive a second look.

And my friend was happy and bought me dinner at a nice restaurant when we were through.

And we wonder why colleges turn out people that aren't particularly well suited to critical thinking despite being "credentialed." It's because some departments force smart people to think dumb in order to get their walking papers.

So while I didn't read any bad books last year, I did read a Master's thesis. And the next time my friend asks me for a favor I will make sure it is something relatively painless before I agree.

Like donating a kidney or something.

If you want to read about other perfectly dreadful reading experiences go here and read about the worst books of 2008.


Anonymous said...

Let me guess: PH was instructed to use the American Psychological Association format for her thesis.

What do psychologists know about coherent writing, anyway?

I began the same chore for a school principal working on her dissertation several years ago. After about 10 pages, I reasoned that life was too short for me to endure such torment and told the lady to find herself another sucker.

I agree with you. This writing style is obfuscation of the highest order. Unfortunate that your friend is bound to play the silly game.

And... if I ever need a kidney, I'll know where to find one :)


Polycarp said...

"Hypersyllabic" is a sesquipedalian coinage. Eschew such ersatz tergiversation.

tmfw said...

Which is about the way the damn thing read.

langhelp49 said...

You're spot-on about having to use the APA format. When I was informed that psychiatrists were determining how my $%^& thesis should look and read, I laughed. Ever look around a grad. psych class? Tics, wire hair, "I can catch you on fire" looks in eyeballs...Complying with these nutballs was repulsive, depressing and just plain fucking stupid.

Oh, and one wouldn't, after all, want to use the MLA (Modern Language Association) guidelines. Those people write for a living, and that would make entirely too much sense.
Paul has kindly offered to donate a retina to me after he unsews his eyes. PH (or what's left of her...blink, squint..shake..slap head...)