Monday, November 30, 2009

Sand County Almanac companion

I'm once more rereading A Sand County Almanac. Since my original copy (dating to college) is falling apart, I got a new copy, this time on my Kindle so I never need to worry about losing another copy. (This also makes it easier to try to get Siobhan to read it since I sent it to her Kindle too.)

What inspired me reading it again is reading Companion to A Sand County Almanac: Interpretive and Critical Essays, which as the title suggests is a set of academic analyses of the book, its author, and its message. Or, rather, not quite reading it, since I ended up skimming most of it.

If you're really keen on this kind of dry, verbose dissection, the book is probably as well done as you could ask for. And there were certainly bits I found interesting, particularly the insight into Aldo Leopold. But most of the book consisted of saying in ten pages what could have been said in ten sentences, and then saying it again on the next ten pages. Most of it was laced with such bombastic hyperbole you would almost expect that Leopold invented ecology. Very little of it really added anything to my appreciation of the book, and in fact, in rereading the original (I'm almost a third of the way through already) I'm confirming that the analysis isn't revealing new insights into the text.

Most pointedly, the style of this companion could hardly be more different from the original text. Leopold's writing is eminently accessible, breezy, evocative, poetic without being in the slightest bit pretentious. But this academic overanalysis is dense (yet largely substanceless), distant, dull, pompous, and peppered with the kind of "analytical" terminology that is the antithesis of "accessible," "evocative," and "poetic." Some of this is inescapable and even desirable: the analysis is intentionally a different thing from what it analyzes, and that requires a different set of tools, different language, and a different focus. But in this case the difference is so great that it suggests liking the original material is not only no guarantee of appreciating the companion, it's a strong counterindication. That is the kind of disability that can be overcome if the content justifies it, but not when it doesn't.

By about halfway through I found myself not merely skimming most of the essays looking for a subject matter of interest (and then skimming to see if they would actually address that subject matter, rather than just framing it and then dodging behind florid but non-responsive prose), but also skimming for the block quotes from the original text. Even out of context, these were compelling enough for me to stop at every one. That's why I decided to reread the book even though it's been scarcely more than a year since my last reading.

I am generally dubious of the meme that academic analysis is disconnected from reality, as it's used to dismiss a lot of very valid thought. But sometimes it can be. Books like this are what give a bad name to academic analysis in general. About the only value I can think of for this work is that it would be useful for someone who wanted to produce even more academic analysis with it. If you had to write a paper for a college class about A Sand County Almanac this book would be indispensable. But that's kind of self-reinforcing, if not masturbatory, if the only use is to create more of the same which has no use but to create more of the same.

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