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  • What Makes a “Big Book”?

In the present issue of Kritika we launch a new rubric: “Classics in Retrospect.” We start with Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers, a work that for decades has defined the way in which nonspecialist, Anglophone readers approach Russian intellectual history, even as its position among specialists remains ambiguous. In the future, we hope to run one or two such essays per year.

It is easy enough to come up with a rough definition of the scholarly classic: a work that has proved important and meaningful to more than one generation of readers. That, however, does not get us very far toward agreement on a number of thornier follow-up questions: what makes a classic; and how many classics there are, have been, or can be in our field. One simple answer would be that classics are only recognizable ex post facto, since the test of time—the unknowable future configurations of scholarly discourse—is all that can distinguish a “big” from a medium-sized book, a landmark from a street sign. Classics are not always recognized in their own time and gain a special aura when posterity discovers in them a stellar quality that contemporaries did not see. Jan Gross’s Revolution from Abroad, originally published in 1988, might be a case in point.1 It offered a staggering new analysis of Soviet totalitarianism but was not identified as such—because it was more recognizable as a high-quality contribution to a series of works on occupation policies in World War II. Or take Caroline Humphrey’s investigation of the Karl Marx Collective Farm in Buryatia: with the vast growth of fieldwork opportunities in the post-Soviet era, Humphrey’s book can be seen to be practically unique as an in-depth anthropological study of a period now inaccessible to participant observation.2 [End Page 1]

The frisson of rediscovery is not obligatory. Sometimes works are pronounced “instant classics” and manage to retain that status through thick and thin. On its first publication in 1985, When Russia Learned to Read brought to general attention a largely unknown source (popular fiction) and used it to suggest new ways of doing Russian cultural history.3 Conversely, some books are hailed as monuments of scholarship and creativity on their first appearance but quickly lose their visibility—perhaps because they become a victim of their own success by triggering an avalanche of similar studies.

The notion of “classic” implies a major contribution to a well-established tradition of intellectual inquiry. A classic may quite literally be exemplary, in that it gives others a model for emulation and represents, in the current administrative jargon, the absolute “best practice” of its era. We might grant this accolade to the oeuvres of S. F. Platonov and P. A. Zaionchkovskii, with their underpinnings in vast source criticism, or to the lucid and erudite essays of Marc Raeff, or to Michael Confino’s illuminating treatments of rural Russia.

Yet, as we try to account for the foundational quality we find in classics, we often have recourse to the Romantic notion of originality. Here the classic shades into another category, the “big book,” which places a more obvious premium on innovation and paradigm shift. Whatever their later reception history, classics may well offer something beyond the horizon of expectation of the era in which they appear. Sometimes, this sense of a fresh start may owe something to a remarkable new source—Humphrey’s collective-farm informants or Brooks’s penny dreadfuls and kopeck newspapers. But it also derives from new questions that are asked of the sources and the (almost by definition) speculative answers that are given to those questions. Many “big books” have been loudly but productively wrong about something important; they have made enough people interested in setting the record straight over the decades to come.

Here we come up against a paradox of our current era. We live in an era of aggressive academic marketing and proliferating praise quotes. Twenty years ago, we read that a book was a “tour de force”—implying an intense level of effort applied broadly and productively. Forty years ago, it might have been “magisterial.” Now, every...


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