Professor or Professional Writer?

If and when I stand accused in the Court of the Common Man that I am an elitist, a snob, or an elitist snob, one piece of evidence my accuser will surely bring against me is the things I care about when I peruse a book, trying to decide whether to read it . I pick up a book, he will say, and the first things I check out — right after I ascertain that the thing is on a subject of interest — are all the trappings of the elite: who the book publisher is, who reviewed the book, and who the book’s author is. (Not necessarily in that order, my accuser concedes.)

Of the first two, I’ve as good as admitted so before. Of the third, let me dig my hole deeper by elaborating thusly. Yes, one of the things that may persuade me to read a book is the professional qualifications of the author. When I pick up on a book on physics, then even though it’s a trade publication, I care that the author is Lisa Randall, “one of today’s most influential and highly cited theoretical physicists” who “held professorships at MIT and Princeton University before returning to Harvard”. When I pick up a book on law, even when it’s written for the lay reader, I usually insist on the author of the book being legal jurist of some caliber, i.e. a judge, a law professor, a notable lawyer. This is because the law professoriate does engage with the public so often — note all the popular books they write — and so well — a great number of them are excellent writers — that I don’t see where a professional writer who is not an active researcher/academic may find an advantage. Yes, I enjoy reading Jeffrey Toobin and listening to Nina Totenberg, both professional journalists rather than academics, but Toobin is Harvard-trained lawyer and Totenberg is prized for her access and wonderful reporting rather than in-depth, sustained legal analysis.

On the other hand, there is no academic counterpart to Mary Roach, “a columnist and popular science writer” who’s authored some awesome books. I will read Roach even if it’s possible to cover the same grounds she does by reading the works of a dozen different persons with academics affiliations. Likewise, for works on history, I see no reason to prefer those by academics over those by non-academic historians.

All this is just a long exposition to ask you what your preferences are in reading. Do you put a premium on the authors of the books you read being a scientist, a researcher, an academic over being a journalist, popular and/or professional writer? Do you put a de-premium/discount on that? Do you prefer the latter over the former? Does your preference vary with the subject matter? Do you insist on the academics when the subject is economics (Krugman, ShillerAcemoglu) but couldn’t care less than it’s  . . .? Take a poll & take a stand.

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