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Expanding the American Mind

Books and the Popularization of Knowledge

Beth Luey

Publication Year: 2010

Over the past fifty years, knowledge of the natural world, history, and human behavior has expanded dramatically. What has been learned in the academy has become part of political discourse, sermons, and everyday conversation. The dominant medium for transferring knowledge from universities to the public is popularization—books of serious nonfiction that make complex ideas and information accessible to nonexperts. Such writers as Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Hawking, Daniel Boorstin, and Robert Coles have attracted hundreds of thousands of readers. As fields such as biology, physics, history, and psychology have changed the ways we view ourselves and our place in the universe, popularization has played an essential role in helping us to understand our world. Expanding the American Mind begins by comparing fiction and nonfiction—their relative respectability in the eyes of reading experts and in the opinions of readers themselves. It then traces the roots of popularization from the Middle Ages to the present, examining changes in literacy, education, and university politics. Focusing on the period since World War II, it examines the ways that curricular reform has increased interest in popularization as well as the impact of specialization and professionalization among the faculty. It looks at the motivations of academic authors and the risks and rewards that come from writing for a popular audience. It also explains how experts write for nonexperts—the rhetorical devices they use and the voices in which they communicate. Beth Luey also looks at the readers of popularizations—their motivations for reading, the ways they evaluate nonfiction, and how they choose what to read. This is the first book to use surveys and online reader responses to study nonfiction reading. It also compares the experience of reading serious nonfiction with that of reading other genres. Using publishers’ archives and editor-author correspondence, Luey goes on to examine what editors, designers, and marketers in this very competitive business do to create and sell popularizations to the largest audience possible. In a brief afterword she discusses popularization and the Web. The result is a highly readable and engaging survey of this distinctive genre of writing.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page

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pp. iii

Copyright Page

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pp. iv

Table of Contents

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pp. ix

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pp. xi

Like any historian, I owe a great deal to librarians, especially those at Arizona State University, the Columbia Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Library, and the Library of Congress. I am also grateful to supportive colleagues at Arizona State University and to my students, especially my research assistant, Paul Tsimahides. Most of ...

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pp. 1-6

Francis Bacon knew his books, but he got one thing wrong: knowledge is not power. The control of knowledge is power. In any university office one is surrounded by people whose brains are bursting with knowledge yet who have no ...

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Chapter 1: Non: The Prefix That Changes What—and How—We Read

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pp. 7-24

When you walk into most public libraries, you come to the Great Divide: fiction is on one side of the building, nonfiction on the other. We all know what fiction is—novels, short stories, works of the imagination. But nonfiction is harder to define because it is everything else, encompassing many different subjects, purposes, and even genres. How can you define a...

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Chapter 2: A Brief History of Popularization

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pp. 25-44

Serious nonfiction is commonly called popularization, popular science, popular history, and the like. These words, although useful until recently, are now imprecise because, beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, the borders between the popular and the scholarly shifted. The word popularization is also somewhat loaded with negative connotations. (It could be worse, ...

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Chapter 3: A Highly Educated Public

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pp. 45-60

Since the settling of the American colonies, Americans have valued literacy and education, at least for some members of society. In colonial times, men were far more likely to be literate than women, and whites were far more likely to be literate than Native Americans (most of whose cultural traditions were oral and who did not have written languages) or ...

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Chapter 4: From Snow to Sokal

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pp. 61-86

A major battle in the culture wars of postwar academe began when C. P. Snow, a scientist and novelist, delivered the Rede Lecture at Cambridge University in 1959. more than fifty years later the title of its first part, “The Two Cultures,” remains part of the vocabulary of every educated person. The differences between the sciences and the humanities continue to be ...

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Chapter 5: Academic Philanthropists

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pp. 87-106

John Allen Paulos, a prolific popularizer, once took his colleagues to task: “Mathematicians who don’t deign to communicate their subject to a wider audience are a little like multimillionaires who don’t contribute anything to charity.”1 His colleagues might defend themselves with a number of explanations: academics are not rewarded for writing popularizations; current ...

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Chapter 6: Writing to Be Read

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pp. 107-146

It’s eight o’clock in the evening, and you have just settled into a comfortable chair with a paperback: In the early-morning hours of May 16, 1968, Ivy Hodge awoke in her flat on the eighteenth floor of Ronan Point Tower. She had moved into the newly constructed block of apartments in Canning Town, east of London ...

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Chapter 7: From Author to Reader

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pp. 147-168

Editors and publishers are often described as gatekeepers, and to aspiring authors this metaphor evokes images of the troll under the bridge who will not let you pass unless you know the magic word, or perhaps the bouncer at a trendy club. To an editor, though, the word has a different meaning. Editors do control the quality of what they publish, but they must open ...

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Chapter 8: Why We Read

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pp. 169-186

Reading is a mystery. Sales figures, opinion polls, and library circulation statistics collectively tell us something about who reads and what they read, but they shed little light on why people read or what they experience as they read. Theories abound, offered by disciplines ranging from literary theory to clinical psychology, each supported by credible evidence and most consistent ...

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Afterword: Popularization and the Future of the Book

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pp. 187-189

The twenty-first century arrived in the middle of the “information age,” at a time when many people were convinced that the book was fast becoming a relic of another era. They reasoned that if you want up-to-the-minute news, stock quotations, treatments for a new disease, or directories to anything from arborists to zoos, the web is better than a bound volume. Others ...


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pp. 191-206

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 207-212


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pp. 213-218

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760284
E-ISBN-10: 1613760280
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558498167
Print-ISBN-10: 1558498168

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Authors and readers -- United States -- History.
  • Books and reading -- United States -- History.
  • Communication in learning and scholarship -- United States -- History.
  • Publishers and publishing -- United States -- History.
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