Acerbic is better than squalid, isn’t it?

It’s easy for me to forget that people actually read this blog. Most of these unknown readers think differently than me, and it isn’t the big issues that seem to irritate, it’s the casual, throw-away lines that are part of the idiom of psuedo-anonymous blog writing. Since I was singed by that casual book-review in August, I’m trying to moderate my tone, which I now learn, can be ‘abrasive’ and ‘acerbic.’ Who knew I was capable of all that and ‘squalid’? This is a learning experience for sure.

My WordPress metrics alerted me to some odd traffic to one of my older blog entries. I recently found the source, a posting on Facebook.

That blog entry was the second in the irregular ‘adventures in forensic bibliography’, and it was offered as an answer to a question posted by a student at the Houston Baptist University. While I cheerfully accept the rebuke from some of the readers for my ‘acerbic’ tone, I don’t want them to think I was ‘misleading with regard to a few important particulars’ if I can help it. Although, I think I know what they are referring to here.

I was also accused of exaggerating the effort involved in locating that quote and while it may have taken little more than 5-10 minutes to track the quote back to its earliest source, and Lamartine, that didn’t make much of a story. Part of the appeal in research is the occasionally convoluted path one takes to get to the end. Usually, we forget the intermediary steps because they didn’t answer our question but I wanted to make the point that the first thing you find, when sourcing this quote, isn’t the original source. That dig at my ‘drama’, while legitimate (if mildly self-serving) managed to insult the research skills of the original poster, who I assume did her own search, or she wouldn’t have asked her friends on Facebook for help. Well that’s two people who can’t use Google books as well as some.

Now, none of the traffic I got from that Facebook page actually produced comments or correspondence. Thus I am at a loss (well, something of a loss) at what important particulars were misled. And that’s where I return to my awareness of tone.

Considering this small audience, what I wrote in reference to the religious sub-text of the quote was meant to be casually irreverent and playfully grumpy (part of the uncultivated academic persona I have come to describe as ‘the interesting, reliable, approachable hard-ass’). For these readers, that came across as virulently anti-Christian and self-important.

As hard as I try to avoid comment on current sensitivities, it’s harder to talk about history without comment on religion, concepts of morality, ethics, and all its modern extensions. John Arnold has described the study of medieval history as an inherently ‘political act’ but practitioners don’t often see this in action.1 My obvious distaste for sectarian agendas (a subjective aspect of my own reading that I am unable to keep out of my writing, unless it’s on its way to peer-review) stood out for these readers like a neon sign and it was that, more than anything else, that was going to ‘generate a few opinions among our readers’. It didn’t seem to generate anything.

I’m fine with that, I’m not trying to pick fights over Christian apologetics or the scholarly value of popular religious publishing. I could probably engage in some learned disputation over the scale and relative influence of the printing press on political and social history in the sixteenth century, and I am more than happy to hash over the contemporary challenges in marking student essays in the age of the internets, when it is so easy for students to grab the first thing off the search results when it sounds right. I might also argue that any institution that advertises an ideological position in its name may be prone to some careless student writing, especially in controversial topics, as they try and produce answers that ‘seem’ right even if they don’t agree with the argument.

From now on, I hope my writing would prompt, from the majority of readers, some adjectives like ‘witty’ or ‘cheerfully irreverent’ and at the very least ‘competent’ or ‘workman-like.’ But please, don’t call me squalid again, that stung (and then it was funny).


1 John H. Arnold, What is Medieval History? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008), 22.



3 thoughts on “Acerbic is better than squalid, isn’t it?

  1. Perhaps you might aim for “rugose”? There’s not many get that applied to their writing style.
    I have, by the way, I’ve mentioned yours to others as both drily witty and academically powerful, and I’m curious in the context of what shows up here were any accusations of squalor might lie. You’re talking about books, not early and pre-modern sanitation!

    • Works as well as ‘actinic’ I guess, and thanks for the kind references. The ‘squalid’ comment came from that Amazon book review and the feral authors’ who make up for their lack of research skills with a bewildering vocabulary. You can’t please everyone. I myself will never be capable of using ‘elide’ without wincing. I just found ‘elide’ and ‘evince’ on the same page of a book that also used ‘agon’ twice, without the slightest comment as to its function. So I guess I will never earn a badge for ‘opaque’ either.

      • My only experience with “agon” was in a science fiction story, in which it was possible to carefully quantify pain; “Apply twelve more agons to the subject in torture machine 7B!”

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