Read. Think. Write. Repeat.

Essays versus Monographs

A few days ago, author Austin Kleon wrote a post critiquing the growing culture of summarizing books instead of actually reading them. His critique is two-fold. First, if a book can in fact be adequately summarized, perhaps it is not worth reading in full in the first place. A corollary to that then is that books that are harder to summarize are more valuable. Having just finished Olivia Laing’s excellent The Lonely City, I find myself agreeing with this. I’ve tried summarizing it in conversation with friends multiple times and I never feel like I’m doing the book justice.

Kleon’s second critique is that if a book can be summarized, is it worth writing in the first place? He talks about the current book publishing process where a book is sold based on a proposal, in effect a summary, the marketing beginning even before the book is written. Kleon says:

This is the sensible, professional way of working, but for me it is a kind of creative death, antithetical to the reason I write in the first place: to discover what I know, or discover what I don’t want to know, to invent something on the page that couldn’t exist unless I went to the page to have an experience in the first place.

Having never published a book, I’m not in a position to comment on his main argument. However, I think Kleon is describing a sort of essay, which according to Merriam-Webster is, an “analytic or interpretative literary composition usually dealing with its subject from a limited or personal point of view”, or alternately “an initial tentative effort”. That is, an essay is fundamentally an exploration, an exercise in considering a topic from different perspectives, often personal, and not necessarily coming to a definite conclusion. An essay is a thought process, in written form.

Aside: it’s not lost on me that this definition of essay is the complete opposite of the typical meaning adopted by educational systems around the world (at least, the ones I’ve been exposed to). Most “essay questions” on homeworks or exams expect persuasive answers, presenting arguments and guiding the reader towards a definitive conclusion, the anti-thesis of the above definition.

By contrast, a monograph is: “a learned treatise on a small area of learning” (also from Merriam-Webster). Writing a monograph will probably require exploration, investigation and learning, but that is not the point of the writing. They are complementary and perhaps interleaved processes, but unlike an essay, they are not the same process. A monograph is a summary (or at least a survey) of knowledge in a particular area. A PhD dissertation, for example, is closer to a monograph than it is to an essay. This post, and Kleon’s, are closer to essays than it they are to monographs.

At the end of Kleon’s post, he asks:

Maybe there’s a third path here. Maybe it’s possible to write something that is easily summarized but impossible to sum up…

I wonder if monographs fit that bill.