Over Shabbat, I started reading two books. Both could be considered quite hashkafik (philosophical) and in fact, seem to share roughly a similar modern Orthodox outlook, but they were miles apart.
You see, there’s style and there’s style. For these blog posts, I write extremely casually but sometimes when I look at my academic essays – not to boast – current-day-me has to use a dictionary to figure out what old-me was saying. Anyway, the point is that I’m familiar with academic writing, and the moral is that I learned how to cite. Now, citation is a unique thing, you see. It’s not name-dropping. Yes, you can include twenty sources on a page in whichever style you like, but there’s a way to do it. And the author of book number one had no idea how to do it.
I started counting the number of times “prominent” “distinguished” “famous” “esteemed” appeared. I swear, I was going crazy. It was like counting how many times “and” appears. That said, the author also could have just called his book “a compilation of excerpts from three books that prove my point” because there is so little of the author’s own writing that it’s just tragic. Okay, that’s a bit nasty (no, I’m not editing it out). But seriously, I don’t exaggerate because almost half of every page is an indented quote.
Am I telling writers not to put their references? NO. Because, I’d like to swing the other way and ask sweetly that the next time you decide to go “it says in the Talmud,” please tell me where in the Talmud. Honey, I hate to break it to you, but I ‘ain’t sifting through 2 711 pages to find your reference. Did I mention that those 2 711 pages are double-sided? Uh huh. Why am I asking for your reference? Half, yes, because I don’t trust you and hey, fake news, and the other half is: if I want to share the idea, I’d like to know where it came from.
Now sometimes (most times, let’s be honest), we don’t know where we heard it or saw it and that’s okay. But just say that. “I’m not certain of the source, but I heard / read that…” Just stop going “the Kabbalists say… (imagine a Rabbi stroking his beard and nodding his head sagely) or “the commentators say on this verse…” (see last comment in brackets, referencing this post). On that last comment (mind the pun), there are hundreds of commentators and I can tell you right now, many of them disagree with each other and have completely different opinions. What, did every commentator say the same thing? Yes, I know, I’m being picky, but I’m trying to prove a point. Just reference what you say.
My second book does that and in fact, I’m enjoying it. Alas, there are no “prominent” “distinguished” “famous” “esteemed” or other adjectives to count, but it is like a gale force of fresh air. Pardon my butchering the metaphor. Ironically, this book has more sources on almost each page than the other one does, but the difference is that these sources are references, not name-dropping. They are sources for what the author has written and most critically, they are neatly placed possibilities for one to locate and examine the original idea. I know and I can feel that the author has done his research but he doesn’t shove that research in my face.
That brings me to the last point of this extremely emotional rant: if you believe in the veracity of your point, you don’t need to name-drop. Why? Because your references should clearly back-up your point, and if they don’t – as author number two knows – then discuss those references. That, coincidentally, is a great way to demonstrate critical thinking. Don’t “pick and choose.” Stop dropping name after name after name to prove your argument. Not only is it mind-numbing but it turns away every thoughtful reader. If you’d like to come across as researched, then yes, please go and learn how to quote (academia is mostly democratic, so there are different referencing styles – you can choose! Believe that!), but really, I’m not asking for a Harvard style referenced article. Just tell me where you got it.