Forgive this post for being more of a smattering of ideas than a cohesive analysis. I’ve recently been considering the size and importance of books, both in the academic field of history in general and Mormon studies in particular. This reconsideration was inspired by an essay in Perspectives on History, the magazine for the American Historical Association. (I strongly recommend reading it before reading this post.)
The essay is about the size of books. The author focuses primarily on the gendered aspect of the question—men, unsurprisingly, tend to quell their anxiety with, ahem, size—but also points to the broader field’s general turning away from large books in favor of monographs small enough to be put on undergrad syllabuses. Here is a key passage:
For better or worse, the megabook on a specific subject appears to be headed for extinction. Behemoths are nowadays only allowed into print if they deal with huge subjects and appear to be synthetic (Jonathan Israel), are authored by a reliably bankable superstar (Simon Schama), or both (Eric Foner). Under financial pressure, academic press editors have become intolerant of authorial logorrhea, and most writers can be effectively cowed with the threat of either illegibly small print or a ridiculously high price. In addition, many of us nurture the fantasy of the “book that will be assigned for classes” and are well aware that anything much over two hundred pages does not stand a chance of landing on a syllabus. The Very Big Book was also an artifact of a bygone social world in which a spouse could be counted on to cheerfully pack up the house for a year’s research abroad, and to have the children picked up and dinner on the table when the scholar emerged from his study.
There is also, of course, the new rigors of the academy, the “publish or perish” model, that emphasizes the necessity to publish books frequently, thereby shattering the former myth of a “teach/scholar” who could place a lot of their time in the classroom and can afford to take decades to finish their book. A few thoughts. First, the community of Mormon history has received this transition in mixed ways, and in a way demonstrates the schizophrenic nature of the field. Those with academic and institutional attachments have typically followed the trend outlined above, as seen in the books by Sally Gordon, Kathleen Flake, Patrick Mason, and Spencer Fluhman, which are around 150-220 pages. Yet, of course, Mormon history has never been owned by those hidden away in the ivory tower, and the numerous and important work that come from those not associated with academic departments have contributed monumental works that maintain the old framework of “big books,” which can number over 500 pages. (Think Greg Prince, Mark Staker, Tod Compton, George Smith, Quinn post-BYU, etc.) There seems, to me, to be at least two reasons for this divergence. First, those not associated with universities don’t have the pressure to publish frequently and can thus take their time to produce a massive work. Second, larger books often come from non-academic presses, thus maintaining a different framework and standard for length. (And this is why Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, published with a major trade press, can tip the scales at 800 pages.) And third, and perhaps most importantly, those in academia expect a tight argument and measured prose, while many others expect heaps and heaps of data and evidence. (Similar to the social history in the 70s that produced all the behemoth books in the academy, in fact.) Actually, you could even shape how scholarly Mormon history followed that trend, as the best books from the 70s-90s were, indeed, behemoths.
I hope it goes without saying that there are benefits and pitfalls to each approach. While shorter and tighter books are often much more measured, well thought-out, and, frankly, can be read in a shorter amount of time, they also are forced to leave out a lot of data and are seldom able to approach anywhere near a “definitive” quality; larger books can spend more time developing more arguments, but can also be long-winded and redundant. The former work well in the classroom; the latter work great as references.
So, a question: will this trend of divergence continue? And is it a good thing?
 An astute point from the essay: “All normative judgments aside, patterns in book sizes are probably not unrelated to enduring traditions of socialization. Men have usually been encouraged to cultivate deep focus even if it verges on the obsessive, to ignore social demands which compete with work, and to assert their presence in space. Women are taught early on to be attentive to social cues, to avoid holding forth at great length or overstaying their welcome. Female academics can be many unpleasant things but “pompous” is rarely among them, and anybody who has suffered politely through a blind date with a windbag knows in their bones that seven hundred pages is just too long.”