Book blurbs are weird. Every book – no matter how awful – manages to find blurbers who will sing its praises. So what, if anything, can you conclude from a book’s blurbs?
I was driven to think about his by the blurbs for my own new book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider. As they came in, and I read people waxing poetic about just how awesome the book is, I was thrilled, and embarrassed, and skeptical, and also felt just a little bit dirty. Had the blurbers actually read my book? Did they really mean those things they said? Would anyone believe them? What if someone did, and bought the book, and didn’t like it?
Here, so you’ll know what I’m talking about, are three of the blurbs for Charles Darwin’s Barnacle:
“More fun than you’ve ever had with taxonomy in your whole entire life! Delightfully written, thoroughly researched, makes you want to learn Latin, and will give good dinner party stories forever.”—Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series
“In ‘Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider’, Stephen Heard tells some of the remarkable stories behind the names of species—and teaches us about how scientists make sense of the natural world along the way. A true pleasure to read.”—Carl Zimmer, author of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity
“Stephen Heard, one of our great science storytellers, brings his passion, curiosity and deep knowledge of biodiversity to sharing insights about our world and how it came to be. In his hands, species names become a window into a much larger world of scientific discovery and the workings of human nature. His gentle, yet passionate prose makes this a book to savor.”—Neil Shubin, paleontologist and author of Your Inner Fish and of Some Assembly Required: Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA
Let’s start with the obvious: these can’t be assumed (to borrow terminology from behavioural ecology) to be honest signals. It’s certainly possible for someone to be asked to blurb a book, and to return something like “Less interesting than watching paint dry” or “After reading this book, I had to wash my eyes”. But no publisher would ever use it (of course). So there’s no mystery as to why every blurb on every book ever published constitutes praise: if you’re in charge of soliciting blurbs, you keep going until you have good ones. Not only that – there’s something of an arms race, where it isn’t enough to say “This book is pretty good”. Instead, blurbers are expected to rave. Look, I’m proud of Charles Darwin’s Barnacle, and I think you’d enjoy it; but in no universe am I “one of our great science communicators” (sorry, Neil). All this is of course perfectly consistent with signaling theory: there are no costs associated with producing a loud signal, and the loudest signals get transmitted (printed on the book jacket), so every signal will be loud.*
But I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that blurbs are meaningless. I think the trick is to realize that every blurber will say they loved the book, so you can ignore that part. But what did they (claim to) love about it?
So back to the three blurbs above.
Diana Gabaldon says that the book is “fun” and “delightful”, and that’s certainly something I was trying for: some serious stories, but some amusing ones too, because why not reward your reader for staying with you?
Carl Zimmer suggests that the book “teaches us about how scientists make sense of the natural world along the way”. Yes: it’s tempting to just tell story after story about funny or striking Latin names, but that would have made for what I think of as a “toilet tank book” – something to pick up and put down, but lacking any larger message. But I like that the teaching happens “along the way”, not right up in your face. That’s how I like to approach the field courses I instruct, too, and nature walks I lead, and probably (if you ask my family) much of my life. You can often teach more via impromptu teaching moments than you can by offering a formal lesson.
Neil Shubin amplifies Zimmer’s point, with “In [Heard’s] hands, species names become a window into a much larger world of scientific discovery and the workings of human nature”. This is my favourite bit, because one of my goals was for the book to show something I think is important: scientists are people, and that means that just like everyone else they show in their work all the virtues and all the vices that come with being human. They can be creative and they can be vindictive; they can indulge in petty squabbles or they can celebrate the universality of love; they can choose to honour (in an eponymous name) someone admirable or someone detestable. There’s a public stereotype of science, and scientists, as somehow apart from the rest of society and somehow above normal human nature, and it’s not helpful. If there’s any one thing I hoped to accomplish with Charles Darwin’s Barnacle, it’s opening the window Shubin talks about.
So can you judge a book by its cover? Well, blurbs won’t help you know if a book is good or not; but they may help you decide whether the book is of a sort you might like.**
Over my career, I’ve sat on quite a few academic search committees. Oh, sorry, was that a jump without a segue? Perhaps you’ve gotten there ahead of me. Everything I say about blurbs is probably true about reference letters too. I’ve never seen one that says “Don’t hire this person”, and I probably never will – because potential writers of such a letter will simply decline to write. And I see frequent suggestions that we abandon reference letters as part of academic job applications. Yes, there are all kinds of limitations to the reference letter, but I think they’re often like blurbs: not about the strength of an applicant as much as about their shape. There’s value there – although whether it outweighs the limitations is a topic for another day.
© Stephen Heard July 20, 2020
Image: Some of the blurbs for Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider
*^Blurbers, of course, understand this; and knowing what they’re being asked for, they presumably tend to deliver.
**^Which is more realistic anyway. No book will appeal to everyone – a lesson I learned when I let the enormous popularity of Master and Commander seduce me into wasting several days on that festering heap of stilted prose.