05 February 2015

Why I cannot write long books

Sir George Joy KBE CMG
(1896 - 1974)
Professor H.H. Price, my DPhil supervisor, when saying that I had an alpha mind, also said that I could say more in one page than most people would say in three. In this context he recognised the brevity of my writing as indicating the high quality of my thinking; but this brevity was generally a drawback, which made fulfilling academic requirements even more burdensome than it would otherwise have been.

My book The Human Evasion perhaps illustrates this brevity at its most extreme. In that case a few people seem to have regarded the brevity as a merit. R.H. Ward said in his Foreword to the book, ‘Few books, long or short, are great ones; this book is short and among those few.’ Sir George Joy described it as ‘a great book’.

One of the aphorisms in my book The Decline and Fall of Science states, ‘I cannot write long books; I leave that for those who have nothing to say’.

It was hard work for me to produce a postgraduate thesis of the expected length, even though I had plenty of ideas, and covered the topic exhaustively and in great analytical detail. By contrast, most DPhil theses contain far fewer ideas, but manage to spin their material out to great length.

Professor Price’s recognition of the quality of my writing did not lead him to suggest to the faculty that it had gone on long enough, when I was still far short of the average length. The bookbinding firm in Oxford to whom I eventually took the thesis in for binding commented on its shortness and the difficulty of finding a hardcover binding that was small enough. Perhaps, of course, they were trying to undermine me, as people often did.

A good deal of academic writing has the opposite characteristic to mine, as the reader has to plough through a lot of waffle to discover the point, or points, if any, of the piece of writing.

When people started to do nominal research in the area of lucid dreams, some years after the publication of my book Lucid Dreams, Dr Keith Hearne acknowledged my priority in this field at the beginning of his own book on the subject. I cannot remember whether it was here or elsewhere that he referred to my book as a ‘little book’. As in the case of my thesis, I had managed to say a lot in a very short space in Lucid Dreams, but this only made it possible to belittle it, rather than its conciseness being regarded as an achievement.

The same problem arose in connection with the speed at which I worked. When I was at school, the fact that I could take exams and get very high marks in them at very short notice was taken as indicating overwork on my part, or ‘pushing’ by my parents. I expect it was taken as a contributory reason for rejecting my DPhil thesis, and awarding it only a BLitt, that I had spent only four years on it, while commuting between Oxford and London to work half the week at the Society for Psychical Research.