Not More than the Sum of its Parts

Collections of essays fall into two sorts: those that are intentionally written to be a collection and those with their constituent parts written, and even initially published, as individual pieces but then eventually pulled together to make a book. Examples of the former include Joseph Epstein’s Narcissus Leaves the Pool, Anne Fadiman’s At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays, and Christopher Hitchens’s Arguablywhile the latter counts in their ranks Ronald Coase’s Essays on Economics and Economists, Gore Vidal’s Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings 1960-1998, and Randy Cohen’s Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything.

There exists a third type of books that read like a collection of essays. These are projects conceived around a single, coherent theme, but as the books develop, their chapters uncouple enough from each other so that they can be read singly and in no strict order to each other. Unlike their conceived-as-essays counterparts, however, these chapters are not self-contained and interesting enough to be read by just themselves. That is, they probably should be read with the introductions to the books, and likely no outlet would publish the chapters as separate units.

The book that I think is a good specimen of this third category is Stuart Banner’s .American Property: A History of How, Why, and What We Own. The chapters from this book are

1. Introduction 2. Lost Property 3. The Rise of Intellectual Property 4. A Bundle of Rights
5. Owning the News 6. People, not Things 7. Owning Sound 8. Owning Fame
9. From the Tenement to the Condominium 10. The Law of the Land 
11. Owning Wavelengths 12. The New Property 13. Owning Life 14. Property Resurgent 15. The End of Property?

The similarly named chapters, “Owning the News”, “Owning Sound”, “Owning Fame” . . . etc., are the most obvious chapters can be read disjointed from each other. You needn’t read “Owning Sound” only after reading “Owning the News” or just before “Owning Fame”, and you needn’t read any of those chapters to appreciate any other chapter. And this is just as true with the other chapters whose names don’t mirror each others’ as clearly.

Some authors are cognizant of the fact that their books fall into this category and actively encourage their readers to read, hop, and skip around their works instead of treating it as a linear, cohesive tome. American Property isn’t one of these, but P.D. Smith’s City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age is.

How do you like this type of book?

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