MOOCs, Braindead Megaphones, the Golden Goose & the Artzt of Public Discussion



Talk loud and say something  (on-line title) Dopey Discourse Is All Too Prevalent (print title)

Austin American-Statesman Posted: 12:49 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013

By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor

Recently I heard Karen Artzt, Ashbel Smith Professor Emeritus of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at the University of Texas at Austin, give a talk about some of her life’s work. She explained the process of searching for coding sequences in mammalian genomes and how the results help prevent physical defects from developing in young children.

Artzt was asked what new discoveries lie ahead. She took time to think and then said, “Progress in this field of research is saltatory.” She traced in the air with her index finger a research timeline marked by sudden steps upward.

In that moment, Artzt’s thoughtful command of language matched her mastery of science. Even those of us who abide by George Orwell’s rule to use plain English words whenever possible knew that the Latin-derived word saltatory — proceeding by leaps rather than gradually — was perfect.

Later, I wondered why Artzt’s reply struck us as so special. I think I now know why, and it is no trivial matter.

We are used to listening to what George Saunders calls “braindead megaphones,” presenters of information who, as the late godfather of soul and plain-speaker of many social and political truths, James Brown put it, practice the art of “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing.”

Artzt gave a direct answer. She did not pretend to know what she could not know. She did not preen as an expert in the spotlight. She told us the truth.

The truth is what James Brown learned growing up in the soul-destroying Jim Crow poverty of Barnwell, S.C. and Augusta, Ga. In his autobiography, Brown said that “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing” was “aimed at the politicians who were running their mouths but had no knowledge of what life was like for a lot of people.”

Instead of straight talk and meaningful discussion, we get in the media and from our political, cultural and institutional leaders what Saunders calls “dopey communication.” Leaders have agenda to push and push fast. They short-circuit discussion and truly democratic deliberation. They speak to wide audiences who have little time to think over what is said and no opportunity to pose questions or counter arguments. Their language is vague, unclear, filled with jargon phrases and assertions unsupported by facts.

For example, UT Austin and the UT System have been mobilizing quickly to be major players in producing massive open online courses (MOOCs) that can be taken electronically by tens of thousands of students worldwide. UT President Bill Powers made a public statement in February, “Our faculty is enthusiastic about this frontier.”

This sounds good. But it is an assertion without proof. It requires that Powers knew that a solid majority of faculty members last February were very keen on the massive online course offerings. But he could not know that without a well-constructed anonymous survey taken after meaningful discussions with the general faculty in the many schools and programs across campus about the many pros and equally many cons of using MOOCs in higher education. It is savvier to claim faculty enthusiasm about a frontier. People used to braindead megaphones will believe it.

One reason to push ahead is that enthusiasts think there is lots of money to be made by developing and offering the MOOCs. Raising revenues is good, but only if we do not cause serious collateral harm to education.

No matter. The Institute for Transformational Learning was authorized by the UT System in August 2011 and established in 2012 “to leapfrog our current efforts” at blended and online learning. In other words, we are leaping right over wise broad-based deliberation.

The institute’s executive director Steven Mintz told the faculty council in March that the use of MOOCs “is the golden goose, and I want to support that goose.” But no one knows whether online courses will be the money-generator that Mintz imagines or the very fairy tale to which Mintz refers.

“The Golden Goose” is tale 64 in the Brothers Grimm collection. In it, all who greedily and without forethought try to pluck golden feathers from the golden goose become stuck to it and to each other. In the end they are thoroughly discomfited.

On MOOCs and other matters our university leaders should think carefully and make haste slowly. They should invite thought from the united faculty of experienced scholar-educators whose work is largely responsible for our ranking 25th among world universities in the latest “Times Higher Education” survey. They surely should know how to tell a golden goose from a goose that will lay a golden egg or no egg at all.

Palaima is a classics professor at the Univeristy of Texas at Austin.

Review: Imperialism, Power, and Identity: Experiencing the Roman Empire

Times Higher Education

Pax Romana’s inherent violence
Tom Palaima appreciates a depiction of the nature of exploitation under Roman imperial rule

Published: 24 March 2011

Title: Imperialism, Power, and Identity: Experiencing the Roman Empire
David J. Mattingly
Reviewer: Tom Palaima
Publisher:Princeton University Press
ISBN: 9780691146058
Pages: 366
Price: £27.95

Reviewer : Tom Palaima is professor of Classics, University of Texas at Austin in the US.

Of all the images of empire offered here, one persists in the memory and haunts the conscience. In a Sebastiao Salgado photograph of the modern Brazilian gold mine at Serra Pelada, countless human beings stretch in ant-like files up, down, around and across the vast sides of the huge pit opened by the collective unmechanised labour of their individual bodies.

What makes the image monstrous is Mattingly’s use of it as a modern relic of the pre-industrial labour conditions that prevailed during the Roman Empire. In his chapter on metals and mines, Continue reading

Review: The Lure of the Arena: Social Psychology and the Crowd at the Roman Games

The Lure of the Arena: Social Psychology and the Crowd at the Roman Games
By Garrett G. Fagan | Cambridge University Press | 374pp, £60.00 and £22.99
ISBN 9780521196161 and 185967 Published 17 February 2011

Reviewer : Tom Palaima is professor of Classics, University of Texas at Austin in the US.

Times Higher Education 2 June 2011

Blood flowing, hordes roaring
Tom Palaima agrees that people’s fascination with watching violence against others doesn’t change

Readers who are lured to Garrett Fagan’s The Lure of the Arena for graphic descriptions of violent acts will not be disappointed. Given the universal questions about human nature and human societies that Fagan poses in trying to explain the phenomenon of the Roman amphitheatre, they will be rewarded with catalogues, drawn from many societies and periods of human history, designed to prove that “the Romans were by no means alone in finding the sight of people and animals tormented and killed both intriguing and appealing”.

Cultures closer to our own in time have been more creative in devising forms of violence for their men, women and children, poor and simple-minded or wealthy and well educated, to witness and enjoy together.

Fagan devotes a long chapter, judiciously illustrated with woodcuts of 16th- and 18th-century public executions, to sampling the “vast corpus of comparative evidence for violence staged before spectators”. Crucifixion, castration, stoning, clubbing, flaying, burning, boiling alive in oil, decapitation, burial alive, drawing and quartering, branding, flogging and other kinds of mutilation cannot match being “braided” on a wheel for gruesome cruelty.

Practised in France until 1787 and in Germany into the 1840s, this manner of execution pulverised the prisoner’s limbs, threaded his body through the spokes of a wheel, and then set it on a pole for public viewing. An eyewitness describes the victim eventually as “a sort of huge screaming puppet, writhing in rivulets of blood, a puppet with four tentacles, like a sea monster of raw, slimy and shapeless flesh, mixed with splinters of smashed bones”. This makes Martial’s description of the Sicilian bandit Laureolus, who was ripped apart by a bear in the arena so that “in his body there was no body”, Continue reading

Review: Invisible Romans: Prostitutes, Outlaws, Slaves, Gladiators, Ordinary Men and Women…The Romans That History Forgot

Times Higher Education

How the other 60 million lived
Tom Palaima discovers the hopes, dreams and lives of ordinary people living under Imperial Rome

Published: 16 June 2011

Title: Invisible Romans: Prostitutes, Outlaws, Slaves, Gladiators, Ordinary Men and Women…The Romans That History Forgot
Robert Knapp
Reviewer: Tom Palaima
ISBN: 9781846684012 and 9781847654472 (e-book)
Pages: 384
Price: £25.00

The lowly and invincible of the earth – to endure and endure and then endure, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” It takes writers with profound human sympathies, such as William Faulkner, to capture what the mass of humanity do with their lives in any period of human history. Faulkner’s short story Tomorrow, quoted here, is one of this earth’s most curiously moving stories about a father’s love for a son. Faulkner calls “invincible” the forgotten and nameless poor whom Robert Knapp calls “invisible”.

In Invisible Romans, Knapp finds ways of making the lives of the non-elite citizens, freedmen and slaves, men, women and children, who lived during the first three centuries of the Roman Empire, more than visible. In direct, almost storyteller-like prose, he makes us feel what life was like for ordinary people living between the ages of Augustus and Constantine, what troubles and sorrows they had daily, with what mindsets they faced their tomorrows, what joys they took from life, how they got by – or didn’t.

Knapp sometimes sacrifices rigour by referring generally to sources. For each of his nine chapters, however, he does give intelligent guidance to readable scholarly treatments. There is also a useful “who’s who” and “what’s what” of literary evidence.

Why is such a book called for? To answer that, one picture is worth a reviewer’s paragraph of words. Go to David Lebedoff’s 2008 parallel biography of Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell, The Same Man, and look at the photograph of the Bright Young Things who, one early morning in London after a Mozart costume party, commandeered jackhammers from a crew of nameless and, even in the photograph, all but faceless street workers.

As Knapp notes, some 50 million to 60 million ordinary people lived out their lives in a Roman Empire dominated by “a tiny, self-perpetuating elite that was limited and defined by wealth, tradition, blood and power”. The super-elite senators and equestrians and the lesser elite members of the decurial order who ran things in cities and towns taken together numbered no more than 200,000. Yet they controlled 80 per cent of the wealth of the Empire. How did we ever come to use the expression “how the other half lives”?

Knapp ferrets out how the other 99.5 per cent lived by mining inscriptions, mostly funerary; graffiti; papyrus letters; sources, such as magical papyri and the 1st century AD Carmen Astrologicum, that reflect the concerns of ordinary people seeking to ward off ever-threatening misfortunes, get love or vengeance, or grab hold of rare good luck; New Testament stories naturally directed at working-class (if they were lucky) Christian communities; the comprehensive collection of Roman legal materials known as the Digest; Greek romance literature; Apuleius, Petronius, Phaedrus and Plautus; and standard works from the canon that mention in passing how the other 60 million live.

Read Invisible Romans and you will be disabused of any fantasies of going to Roman baths. They offered, as Knapp describes, “for the ordinary and elite alike, not only social interaction but a dangerous lack of hygiene shocking even to contemplate”. You will also find out why, in an age of constant underemployment, a career as a soldier was coveted, despite the long-term commitment, danger, separation from family and the legal celibacy that it imposed.

A photograph of the signatures that two women slaves named Delftri and Amica, working together in a roof-tile factory, crudely scratched into the soft clay of one of the tiles alongside the imprints of their tiny shod feet speaks volumes about the todays and the hopes for tomorrows of Knapp’s Romans made visible.

This is a remarkably kind and thoughtful book.

Review: The Last Pagans of Rome

Times Higher Education§ioncode=26

Published: 1 September 2011

Title: The Last Pagans of Rome
Author:Alan Cameron
Reviewer: Tom Palaima
Publisher:Oxford University Press
ISBN: 9780199747276
Pages: 896
Price: £80.00

If you have a week of uninterrupted spare time, a knowledge of Roman imperial literature and history, however dormant, a passable command of Greek and Latin, and you have enjoyed reading classic histories of ancient culture by historians such as Edward Gibbon, or always wish you had, then treat your mind to Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome. Cameron here dissects and deconstructs more than 100 years of scholarship about the transition from what we call late Roman imperial pagan culture to what is known as the triumph of Christianity.

As befits a scholar whose work in this area since 1964 includes countless articles and reviews and six books, the weighing of ancient evidence and modern scholarly opinion in The Last Pagans is meticulous. It is also controlled by the broader understanding of cultural processes and human motivations that makes a thinking senior scholar a scholar worth reading rather than a scholiast who has made it to old age. The Last Pagans re-examines what religious beliefs and practices mean in the social and political context of the late fourth and early fifth centuries AD.

Each chapter requires that serious attention be paid to the subtle, interwoven threads of Cameron’s own arguments. It is well worth the effort, but the book itself makes it harder for readers than necessary. Some Latin and Greek passages are accompanied by translations; others are not. Some cited texts are given in the footnotes; others are not. Non-specialist readers, like myself, are given no helpful chronological tables of key events and figures or authors and their works. Some readers will be thrown momentarily off track by simple errors of presentation. For example, in the chapter where Cameron treats the religious or secular meanings of major pieces of classical revival and pagan art (bronze medallions, silver plates, illuminated manuscripts, ivory diptychs), the middle figure on the Lampadiorum ivory panel is described as having a mappa (a kind of napkin that the suffect consul releases to mark the start of the games he is sponsoring) in his left hand and a sceptre in his right, when in fact the opposite is true.

Cameron opens his introduction with a quotation from Gibbon about the “ruin of paganism, in the age of Theodosius” as “a singular event in the history of the human mind”. He grabs our attention by proclaiming that “the romantic myth” of a class of pagan aristocrats who in the 380s and the following decades were “fearless champions of senatorial privilege, literature lovers, and aficionados of classical (especially Greek) culture as well as traditional cults” must be dismantled.

He proceeds to do so by reconsidering how the history of the period was shaped, what effect the perspective of Christian writers had on creating the false constructs of a “pagan revival” and a “last pagan stand” spearheaded by an aristocracy who, in Cameron’s view, were “arrogant, philistine land-grabbers, most of them”. To be successful, members of the Roman elite also had to be shrewd, politically adept and pragmatic. This is hardly a pool that would contain many zealous champions of paganism, which, after all, was not even a formal religion. Cameron argues convincingly that few of those whom we now call “pagan aristocrats” self-identified as pagans. Nor did they rally around the usurper Eugenius for religious reasons. And there was no true pagan revolt.

Our age of ever-increasing wealth disparity gives us ample reason to support Cameron’s incredulity at the prevailing notion of a senatorial aristocracy devoted to classical culture, literature and philosophy and to collecting and correcting manuscripts. Ironically, Christian leaders such as Jerome and Augustine were truly learned in what we call the Classics. They “could not resist to show off their classical culture when writing to members of the elite, whether pagan or Christian”. By contrast, Ammianus Marcellinus, “the most important pagan writer of the age”, pillories late 4th-century Roman aristocrats for “arrogance, ostentation, superstition, gluttony, and cruelty”. He notes that former houses of what we would call literary patrons now shunned “men of learning and sobriety” and “their libraries are like tombs, permanently closed”.

In demolishing the long-standing theory that the images on the bronze medallions known as contorniates were part of an active pro-pagan propaganda campaign in the late 4th century, Cameron stresses that “the ‘conflict’ over classical culture was entirely one-sided. While some Christians condemned it, there is no evidence that pagans ‘promoted’ it.” On wall paintings, floor mosaics and precious objects such as the silver Mildenhall plate, “Dionysus is not portrayed as a saviour or redeemer” or as a rival of Christ. “His mission is simply to bring men and (especially) women joy in the form of wine.

“Nowadays,” Cameron notes, “we place such culture heroes on postage stamps.”

Review: The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan

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The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan
By George Steiner

New Directions Publishing

223pp, £15.99
ISBN 9780811219457

Times Higher Education 23 February 2012

Creativity? It’s all Greek to me

Tom Palaima lauds a reflection on the millennia-old struggle to express original ideas through language

What are thoughts? Who has them? Who first had them? How are thoughts thought? Is thinking thoughts different from expressing them? How are thoughts expressed? What happens to them when they are? Are thoughts and feelings tied together? If the process of having thoughts came into being, can it also come to an end? If so, what might cause this terrifying possibility to happen?

None of these questions is asked so plainly in George Steiner’s The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan, but all are explored with subtle care. Thoughtful readers will come away with heightened sensibilities and intimations about the Western tradition of humanistic thought. I think Steiner, if he were to speak or write plainly, would say that having a sense of understanding bordering on knowing is the best that even the most thoughtful homines sapientes can do. It is not glib to call to mind Plato’s account of Socrates’ explanation, at the end of his own life – in fact, when his own life was in peril – of his relationship to thoughts: that he was wiser in not thinking he knew things that he did not know.

This is a dense book. Its pages are filled with ideas written in Steiner’s own poetic, almost Johnsonian Latinate, prose. It contains many unglossed terms and phrases taken from serious Hebrew, Greek, Roman, German, French, Italian, Russian and Romanian thought-makers. In most cases, simple English equivalents for Steiner’s own abstract words or for borrowed terms and phrases – and all their attendant implications – cannot be found. There is no way to do this book justice in a review, but arguably, and fortunately, no way to do it serious injustice either. Why? Because in The Poetry of Thought, Steiner is writing down his own thoughts on thoughts for himself, rather than for us who do not have his polymathic familiarity with philosophy, poetry, music, literature and mathematics from the Greek pre-Socratics until the late 20th century.

There are no notes. There are no indices. Some few translations of the words of cited thinkers are given in a brief appendix. The translations seem to have been done when Steiner himself was wrestling with how to understand in English the thought content of the original passages. Steiner calls his book an essay. It is. It is also an argument in the literal sense. It casts light and helps us see.

Steiner’s thesis is that the “intellectual and poetic creativity” of the Greeks “during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. remains unique in human history. In some respects, the life of the mind thereafter is a copious footnote.” The Poetry of Thought extends that footnote. Steiner starts from the song poems of Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles and Homer before them, from metaphor that gave birth to abstract thoughts and to poetic instincts and tools that have been used by thinkers throughout the Western tradition to express what Coleridge called “thoughts all too deep for words”.

In a brief last chapter, Steiner reflects on the new technologies that threaten privacy, silence and memory, that block our paths to “the poem and the philosophical statement”. He writes that “the humanities” (his quotation marks) “bleakly failed us in the long night of the twentieth century”. But he places hope that “somewhere a rebellious singer, a philosopher inebriate with solitude will say, ‘No’”, and thereby rekindle the lightning of thought of Heraclitus and of Karl Marx. Steiner shares Marx’s belief that books and words can “irradiate the dormant spirit of men and women, rousing them to humanity”.

“In the beginning was the Word”, and the word may make a new beginning.

Published 24 January 2012
Reviewer : Tom Palaima is professor of Classics, University of Texas at Austin.

Review: Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (2001)

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Times Higher Education 9 February 2012

Baffled by the ease with which titles promising to turn world history on its head have won huge audiences despite defying logic and lacking proof, Daniel Melia laboured to divine the hidden secrets that allow anyone to identify truly ‘bad books’

Pseuds’ corner
The world is full of “bad books”; not just uninteresting, or ill-informed, or morally repugnant books, but books that set out to present or defend positions that are insupportable in logic. I speak here not of books such as Hitler’s Mein Kampf but of books that include Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods? (1968), which presents “proof” of visits to Earth by extraterrestrials, or of Barry Fell’s America B.C. (1976), which “proves” that ancient Celts reached North America before the time of Christ, or The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982), in which Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln purport to prove that lineal descendants of Jesus (and his wife, Mary Magdalene) walk among us. The Holy Blood has the additional distinction of having been the inspiration for Dan Brown’s best-seller The Da Vinci Code (2003). Often these bad books become quite popular, and frequently gain a wider audience than good books on the same subjects. In discouraging my students from relying on such bad books, I began to wonder why they are popular. Few are models of prose style, although most provide a brisk enough narrative. Most of them are long, between 300 and 500 pages. Are we seeing here just the literary equivalent of Gresham’s law, or is there something else going on?

As a Celticist, I have been particularly plagued by the books of the late Barry Fell. Students, members of the general public and news reporters seem to find his work irresistible. His books are even for sale in museum gift shops. Early one morning I telephoned a local news radio station in San Francisco to attempt to explain why it was most unlikely that, as they had gleefully reported, St Brendan and his crew had left extensive inscriptions in a cave in West Virginia in the 7th century, according to Fell. “But he’s a Harvard professor!” argumentative enthusiasts would explain to me. “Of marine palaeontology,” I would point out. “He’s published dozens of articles on Libyan ogham (sic) in the New World!” “But all of them were published in his own journal, whose only peer reviewer is himself.” And so on. In self-defence, as much as anything else, I began to look at how Fell and his ilk presented their arguments, and the more closely I looked, the more a set of rhetorical characteristics began to emerge that seemed to be common to many of these “bad books”, regardless of their subject matter. In 2003, I decided to offer as part of an undergraduate course a freshman seminar on the rhetoric of bad books, “Bad books and how to spot them”.

The freshman seminars are often an oblique introduction to the instructor’s department, and it seemed that having bright and eager freshmen do close reading of even bad books was a step in the right direction appropriate to the department of rhetoric in which I teach. The bad news was that most of these students had actually never really dealt with books as books. Most of their school reading was from anthologies and few of them regarded books – codices – as more than physical frames for content, the context of which remained unexamined.

Their very ignorance, however, turned out to be an ideal way to approach the problem of recognising “badness” in books and a test for my contention that a careful reader, familiar with the conventions of publishing and argument, can learn to spot a bad book without knowing anything about the subject that the book purports to elucidate. The first book we looked at was The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (1998) by Leonard Shlain. Shlain’s general thesis in the book is that the introduction of writing caused the shift from matriarchy to patriarchy and from goddess worship to god worship in all the cultures around the Mediterranean. The first task I set my students was to look at the information surrounding the text. When was the book first published? Who published the book, and where? Is there an index in the back? Is there a bibliography, footnotes, endnotes? Are there maps, illustrations, an introduction? Is there biographical information about the author? When we began to look at the book itself, the students learned that the volume they were reading had originally been published in 1998, but that they were holding the 1999 first printing of the paperback version. The book has an index, and, as it happens, an extensive and useful one. There is also a bibliography, and it is here that a hint of potential “badness” first surfaced. Most of the bibliographical entries concerning anthropology, physiology, neuroscience and the like were reasonably up to date (S. F. Witelson, “Hand and sex differences in the isthmus and anterior commissure [sic] of the human corpus callosum: a postmortem morphological study”, Brain, vol. 112, 1989: 799-835, for example), but a large number of works cited in the areas of culture and history seemed curiously antique (H. Schoenfeld, Women of the Teutonic Nations, Philadelphia, 1908). Granted, there is nothing wrong with consulting classic works from the past, Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, for example, but the bibliography seemed to show that the author either chose to consult and cite seriously old-fashioned scholarly works because more recent ones failed to support his argument, or that he simply did not know that recent and superior work had been done in these areas, or that he did not care. None of these explanations bodes well for the quality of the argument of the book itself.

* And thus we can state The First Characteristic of Bad Books: the bibliography has strange features. It contains, for example, a large number of items that seem antiquated, unscientific or off the subject. The author cites himself repeatedly, or cites a very small number of sources. By way of comparison, in America B.C., Fell cites his own articles in the journal of the Epigraphic Society (which he edited himself) extensively and the work of recognised linguistic scholars of Celtic and Native American languages almost never.

Turning to the front of The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, we find an extremely enthusiastic preface in which the author describes his excitement while on a tour of the Mediterranean at the large number of shrines to goddesses (from several different cultures) which had fallen into desuetude in ancient times. Speculating on the reasons for this change, he hits on a “neuroanatomical hypothesis” to explain it. So we have a kind of mystery, uniting physiology, anthropology, history and mythology. He then promises shocking revelations: “My hypothesis will ask readers to reconsider many closely held beliefs and open themselves up to entirely new ways of looking at familiar events.” We also learn from the preface that Dr Shlain is head of his surgery department at a major medical centre and experienced in operations involving the carotid arteries that supply blood to the brain.

* The Second Characteristic of Bad Books: overenthusiastic prefaces by autodidacts. The front matter in bad books usually includes a preface with the following characteristics: the author has had his eyes suddenly opened to the existence of a mystery in a field in which he is not an expert (although he may be an expert in other fields) and the author has discovered the key to unravelling this mystery, a key that has been overlooked, disregarded or suppressed by experts. The introduction to Gavin Menzies’ 1421: The Year China Discovered America (2002) opens with the sentence, “Over ten years ago I stumbled upon an incredible discovery, a clue hidden in an ancient map which, though it did not lead to buried treasure, suggested that the history of the world as it has been known and handed down for centuries would have to be radically revised.” Menzies, by the way, is a retired naval officer.

Good books, of course, may also be written by autodidacts; Michael Ventris’ decipherment of Linear B and Alexander Marshack’s work on Palaeolithic drawing techniques come to mind. Neither of those independent scholars, however, offers the kind of breathless preface usually found in bad books, even though their discoveries actually did change “the history of the world as it has been known”.

But what of the text itself? Here, too, there are rhetorical commonalities. The texts of these books all continue in the same excited first-person voice. They often introduce vague, undefined or invented terms. Shlain speaks of a “group psyche” and divides, quite arbitrarily, the mind into “three realms: inner, outer, and supernatural”. Fell has invented “Libyan ogham”, and the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail declare as an “indisputable historical fact” that there was a secret order behind the Knights Templar known as the Prieure de Sion which continues to operate in the present.

* The Third Characteristic of Bad Books: their central arguments depend on special definitions or special knowledge peculiar to the author.

A persistent rhetorical sequence in bad books is “assumption creep”. Things described in early chapters as speculation or conjecture soon become likely, and are then taken as established facts. The question “Could the Cathar ‘treasure’ like the ‘treasure’ Sauniere discovered, have consisted primarily of a secret? Could that secret have been related in some unimaginable way to something that became known as the Holy Grail?” in chapter two has become by chapter nine “For if the Templars are indeed guardians of the Grail…the Grail existed not only in Arthurian times, but also during the Crusades.” In 1421 we learn on page 75 that “three of these great fleets were placed under the command of Grand Eunuch Hong Bao, Eunuch Zhou Man and Eunuch Zhou Wen”. By page 135, we learn that “Admiral Hong Bao’s designated task was to chart the world eastwards from the fixed reference point established at the Falkland Islands”, a conclusion based not on any surviving Chinese documents, but on a long chain of suppositions concerning a 15th-century European map of the Atlantic.

* The Fourth Characteristic of Bad Books: assumption creep. Confident conclusions are often the result of chains of circumstance and supposition so long that even remembering their origin points while reading the books is difficult.

Allied to assumption creep is the apparent abolition of Occam’s razor. Bad books create arguments based not only on dubious premises and shaky data, but almost never resort to the simplest explanation available. The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, for instance, asks why the Crusades (starting in the 11th century), the Cathar heresy (12th and 13th centuries) and the Grail legend (late 12th century) should arise “together”. Coincidence is ruled out, although it seems the most probable answer.

* The Fifth Characteristic of Bad Books: rejection of the simplest and most logical explanations for observed phenomena, Occam’s beard.

Another interesting feature of many bad books is the half-comparison. Fell, for instance, compares the discovery of Irish ogham writing to Cotton Mather’s discovery of some strange pre-16th century markings on the so-called Dighton Rock in Massachusetts. He proceeds at length to discuss and “decipher” the Dighton Rock inscriptions as Celtic ogham, but never actually completes his comparison. In addition to Fell, I seem to be haunted by the Dighton Rock. As a child, I was taken to see the stone when visiting my grandparents who lived nearby. So I was amused to see it brought forward as “evidence” by Fell, but dumbfounded when it turned up again in 1421, this time as “evidence” for a visit to Massachusetts by the Chinese fleet in the 1420s. I am tempted to suggest that any book using Dighton Rock as part of its evidence ought to be regarded as a bad book on that basis alone.

* The Sixth Characteristic of Bad Books: use of the half-comparison. Similarly, data or proof are often said to be coming in later chapters, but in the event do not appear. 1421, for example, refers readers to its website for data and proof.

But why do people seem to prefer books peddling snake oil to books peddling antibiotics? My guess is that it is exactly those rhetorical features signalling the books’ “badness” that account for their popularity. Copious bibliographies and footnotes provide credentials for the author’s gravitas. Breathlessly enthusiastic prefaces and claims of unveiling secrets make the reader look for further exciting revelations; and “outsider” status, somewhat paradoxically, can be taken as evidence of the writer’s lack of bias. Assumption creep seems to be understood as the writer’s growing confidence in his conclusions rather than as the definitional sleight of hand it actually is. Unfulfilled promises of information-to-come in later chapters move the narrative forward while obscuring weaknesses in data, although half-comparisons and the failure to apply Occam’s razor probably ought to be red flags to almost anybody.

I fear that most of us are susceptible to confident and daring assertions about the unknown and the counter-intuitive, however, so I am betting that bad books are here to stay. I just want to warn my students.

What makes a book ‘unpickupable?’

Susan Bassnett, professor of comparative literature in the department of English at the University of Warwick

What makes a bad book? Well, sometimes it isn’t the book itself, it is where we as readers happen to be at the time we encounter it. We might rate a book bad and then years later reassess our views, or vice versa. I recently gave away a pile of books I had never been able to finish, all of which had “postmodernism” or “postcolonial” somewhere in the title, because in the 1990s those were fashionable buzzwords.

Somewhere on my shelves is a book about aliens visiting the Earth and drawing the Nazca Lines (in Peru), which attracted a global readership and must have made the writer a lot of money.

High on my list of Really Bad Books are two best-sellers: Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, both of which I rate as dreadfully badly written. Brown wrote to a computer game formula: solve one level and move on to the next, whereas Mantel just wrote and wrote and wrote. I have yet to meet anyone outside the Booker panel who managed to get to the end of this tedious tome. God forbid there might be a sequel, which I fear is on the horizon.

Tom Palaima, professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin

A prime example of a bad book is Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath’s Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (2001). US universities had already become “employment credentialing stations” when Dick Cheney’s “pet classicist” and favourite Iraq War champion, Victor Davis Hanson, and the classics professor John Heath took 300 pages to pillory classics scholars for metaphorically killing Homer and “fail[ing] the country”. There were more weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq than sound arguments in Who Killed Homer? One telltale sign to look for in a bad book: when authors tell you in their introduction what they have not done in the book they have written, you know what you will find in the book you are about to read.

Valerie Sanders, professor of English at the University of Hull

Bad books are unreadable books, in my view, irrespective of what they say. Hard-core literary theory of the 1980s must be responsible for some of the most impenetrable and jargon-ridden prose of the past quarter century: “The center is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere” [sic]. This is actually from one of Jacques Derrida’s essays, Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, but any of his books would do – along with any author who dares to call George Eliot’s Middlemarch “an autonomous signifying practice”. As for novels, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings every time (“‘Ware! Ware!’ cried Damrod to his companion. ‘May the Valar turn him aside! Mûmak! Mûmak!’”).

Thomas Docherty, professor of English and comparative literature, University of Warwick

I don’t think that the world is full of bad books, but I do think that it is full of books that have not yet found a reader adequate to the task of reading them. And I am, of course, one such reader. The real task is not to make ungenerous judgement from a position of critical superiority but rather to find a critical humility that allows for the possibility of reading, for the necessity of re-reading and, above all, to respond to the great call from Rainer Maria Rilke that, when faced with art, “you must change your life”.

Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at the University of Warwick

These three books – popular in their day – each exemplify how academics are all too willing and able to play the “ignorance is strength” card:

Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (1994). This book set the tone for PoMo-bashing that inspired the Sokal Affair (a publishing hoax). The mere fact that a mathematician and a biologist can’t make easy sense out of what humanists say about science apparently licenses an endless stream of out-of-context quotes bathed in invective.

Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002). Pinker argues like a high-school debater who hides a superficially attractive thesis in mounds of data that have been intellectually asset-stripped, so as to hide any theoretical or methodological doubts that might be raised about the thesis.

Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006). This book demonstrates the asymmetry of academic standards. A book by a theologian speaking this ignorantly about biology would never have been published, let alone become a best-seller. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work the other way round.

Roger Luckhurst, professor in modern and contemporary literature at Birkbeck, University of London

Working in the weird borderlands of literary and critical theory, one can come across some pretty bad books. When a theorist becomes fashionable, presses rush to publish their flimsiest peelings (which is not necessarily their fault). There are quite a few expensive little books by the likes of Jacques Derrida or Giorgio Agamben that the world could probably get along well without. But the worst book? Surely my own first attempt, The Angle Between Two Walls: The Fiction of J.G. Ballard (1997). There’s some truly horrible, obscurantist prose in there.

Postscript :

Daniel F. Melia is associate professor of rhetoric and Celtic studies, University of California, Berkeley.