It’s just a book. It’s just paper and ink (or pixels and light). It’s just a book which has been published for a very selective readership of academics. It might have an impact on the field of tribology, experimental philosophy or cognitive neuropsychology but it isn’t about to break concrete up or change the world.
This is a thought that came to me while reading an article on the BBC website today about a ‘groundbreaking’ exhibition. The thought doesn’t relate specifically to the contents of the article, it is about my job. Part of my job entails me reading a lot of book blurbs. I have to transform book blurbs into book abstracts for Oxford Scholarship Online. Book abstracts should be descriptive rather than persuasive so I have to do a lot of ‘toning down’ and aggressive adjective removal. I don’t want the text to tell readers that the book is ‘the most outstanding study of it’s kind on the encounter between the common law legal system and the tribal peoples of North America and Australasia’. I want it to tell them that it ‘examines the encounter between the common law legal system and the tribal peoples of North America and Australasia’.
I used to write book blurbs myself during my full-time working days so I know that the task of the book blurber is to sell the book. I know all the theory. Grab them in the first sentence and they will be yours for £9.99. I appreciate that the back cover is the only chance a publisher has to persuade a reader not to put the book back on the pile in Waterstones. The Amazon blurb can swing the decision between add to basket or back button. I know all about strap lines and the value of a quote from Stephen Fry or The Sunday Times (or Professor Famous-in-his Field from Harvard University).
If you are tasked with selling a book with a title such as Law, Power, and Imperial Ideology in the Iconoclast Era then you need to think of some really outstanding selling points to get potential readers interested. I understand that. Many years ago, I had to write the blurb for this book Britain’s Historical Railway Buildings: An Oxford Gazetteer of Structures and Sites (which incidentally I think is a fantastic book – I think the blurb on Amazon is mine).
However, there are two oft-chosen words to describe a book that send shivers down my spine. These are groundbreaking, path-breaking. Not once during my career as a book blurber did I describe a book as groundbreaking or path-breaking. I cannot describe any book, however amazing and however revolutionary ‘in its field’ as likely to break a bath. It is a metaphor that I cannot bring myself to use (or allow to appear on Oxford Scholarship Online).
That is, unless the book in question was about concrete crushers. This book might indeed be path breaking.