The author seeks to obtain the advice of an unknown Other to advance the rhetorical domain of the self, such that greater clarity in discourse may be achieved.
December 4, 2010 7:45 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking to read published academic essays or books that stand out for their excellent writing quality as much as for their content. Any and all subjects are welcome. So far, I've received recommendations for journalistic-style essays, which is not what I'm looking for. Thanks!
posted by waterandrock to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
It would help if you tell us what disciplines interest you.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 8:09 PM on December 4, 2010

Best answer: I recently read Tsipy Ivry's Embodying Culture and Elly Teman's Birthing a Mother and thought that they were both very well written.
I am a big fan of Philippe Bourgois' books (Righteous Dopefield, & In Search of Respect), & his writing style in general. João Biehl's Vita is an interesting style of writing (although idk if i would call it excellent), and I also really enjoyed reading Rayna Rapp's Testing Women, Testing the Fetus. I also generally think that Trevethan and Farmer are also good/engaging writers.
posted by anthropophagous at 8:10 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by Wordwoman at 8:10 PM on December 4, 2010

Are you looking for paragons of clarity, or writers with a certain sort of literary quality to their works? If you're after the latter, then in semi-contemporary philosophy, WVO Quine and Jerry Fodor have what I'd say are the most distinctive and literary rhetorical voices. Quine reminds me of Joyce quite a bit, but I've heard plenty of people disagree with me on this point. Fodor is pretty much a humorist or satirist. For Quine, check out the first chapter of Word and Object, or maybe his papers On What There Is or Posits and Reality.

If you're looking for clarity, or papers that make their point especially well, different papers are to be recommended.
posted by painquale at 8:12 PM on December 4, 2010

Best answer: Anything by Tony Judt is going to be wonderfully written.

Going back in time, Roland Barthes remains one of the most pleasurable postmodern essayists. Mythologies is just a fucking straight out classic.

Primo Levi's essays can be incredibly depressing but very well written. If This Is A Man is incredible.

Have you considered Rosseau, Montaigne etc? Jeremy Bentham could also be on the list.

This great book might be very helpful to you.
posted by smoke at 8:14 PM on December 4, 2010

Best answer: Harry Frankfurt. The Importance of What We Care About.
posted by crack at 8:19 PM on December 4, 2010

Best answer: You mean original research full of footnotes that was probably peer-reviewed at some point? I think Daedalus mostly tries to publish well-written academic pieces accessible to a wide audience. But really, I've seen the most absurd judgments in this domain--one person's lucid, polished prose is another's incomprehensible gibberish and another's Andy Rooney--that it's hard to guess what you'll appreciate. In cultural anthropology / cultural studies, I happen to think Clifford Geertz's The Interpretation of Cultures, James Clifford's The Predicament of Culture, and Edward Said's Orientalism present clear and engaging arguments worth attention for their structure and prose, but YMMV ... a lot.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:21 PM on December 4, 2010

Best answer: I've always enjoyed how accessible and well written Ronald Coase is.

His "Problem of Social Cost" is really a delight to read compared to a number of other economic papers.
posted by politikitty at 10:04 PM on December 4, 2010

First thing I think of is the longtime Yale professor Richard B. Sewall's biography The Life of Emily Dickinson, a two-decade labor of love. A few of its conjectures have been superseded by more recent scholarship, but it is still unsurpassed for scope, depth, and grace of prose. Worth reading even if you don't think you're interested in Dickinson.
posted by cirripede at 10:33 PM on December 4, 2010

You might appreciate Penguin's Great Ideas series. Typically they pick a handful of the best essays from people like Seneca, Thomas Paine, Machiavelli, Freud, Orwell, and then turn them into small 100 page books. I have enjoyed all that I've read so far, they're cheap, they have great covers, and they're available on Amazon in the US and UK. George Orwell's stood out as the best written so far, though I disagreed with almost everything he said..
posted by wackybrit at 10:39 PM on December 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

There are a number of academic historians who have this knack--and, sadly, plenty of others who don't. Linda Colley is one of the ones who does. EP Thompson was, too--most famously in The Making of the English Working Class (read the Preface), but some of the essays here would be a great place to start. Eugen Weber was another historian with a fine prose style, famously (among historians) here.

Also, obligatory London Review of Books reference. The article by Sheila Fitzpatrick in this fortnight's edition is more of a memoir than an academic piece, about doing doctoral research in the Soviet archives in 1960s Moscow, but it's really good.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 11:42 PM on December 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era is both the canonical Ezra Pound scholarship and a high water mark of clear, insightful prose.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:43 AM on December 5, 2010

I'll have to scout my shelves, but off the top of my head -- Coral Lansbury's "The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England" is well-written, accessible and interesting.

From the Amazon review: "In this fascinating, engagingly written book, the author uses a series of 1907 riots in London concerning the erecting of a statue of a brown dog to explore the connections between labor, feminists, and antivivisectionist forces. Lansbury's contention is that workers and feminists identified themselves with the trembling animal strapped to the operating table. If the inflicting of pain on animals was justifiable, then who might be next? Lansbury supports her case through analysis of novels and events of the time, and also illuminates feelings behind today's animal rights movement."
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:47 AM on December 5, 2010

Alexandra Harris's Romantic Moderns, winner of the Guardian First Book Award 2010, started life as a doctoral thesis. It's a wonderfully written exploration of interwar English art and culture – sounds arcane, but Harris's prose really sings and I enjoyed it immensely.
posted by HandfulOfDust at 5:08 AM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

As a historian, these are some of the writers I turn to when I'm having trouble expressing my ideas and want to remind myself what good writing looks like:

Peter Brown's books are famous for their style as well as their scholarship. Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (1982) and Authority and the Sacred (1995) are available on preview in Google Books, if you want a flavour of his writing.

Richard Cobb was another celebrated stylist. If you're not familiar with his work, the essays in Paris and Elsewhere would be a good place to start, though if you want to see him at the height of his powers, read Death in Paris.

Caroline Walker Bynum is another magnificent writer; Wonderful Blood is a technical study of medieval theology, and I suppose a lot of people would call it difficult, but when I read it I was left almost breathless by the clarity and precision of the writing.

The list of winners of the Wolfson History Prize will give you some more leads to accessible, well-written scholarly history.
posted by verstegan at 6:51 AM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Related.
posted by brainwane at 7:04 AM on December 5, 2010

When I was slogging through the writing of my dissertation, I often felt as though the critical materials had all been translated from the original 18th-century German. They hadn't, of course, but the feeling of sinking into leaden prose was sometimes overwhelming.

By accident, on a break from writing, I came across Desmond Morris's delightful "Animal Days." (He holds a D.Phil. degree from Oxford University "for his doctoral thesis on the Reproductive Behaviour of the Ten-spined Stickleback," says his website). It's an autobiography -- way out of my field -- but it wrestles with the problem of making the esoteric accessible, and it does so in a charming, smart and disarming way. Highly recommended as inspiration.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:29 AM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! Definitely have enough to keep me busy for a while, but more recommendations are appreciated. Writing narrative seems to be more amenable to engaging prose. Guess I am more interested in theory at the moment.
posted by waterandrock at 8:02 AM on December 5, 2010

Northrop Frye is amazing. His The Bible As Literature is a pretty astonishing book.
posted by cmyr at 9:48 AM on December 5, 2010

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