I’ve been in situations where I have been amazed at what I see as an almost encyclopedic knowledge that many Vietnamese scholars have about the work of other Vietnamese scholars. People can tell you exactly who published what, in what year, and with which publishing house, etc.
In some Western countries, scholars also have to know about the work of their fellow scholars. But there are many scholars who can’t tell you what year a book was published in (although they can usually remember the general time period), and they might not remember the title correctly or which publisher published it. But what they will remember, is the argument that the author made, and whether or not the author was successful in making her/his argument.
I was thinking about this recently as I was reading some reviews that some Vietnamese scholars wrote about the work of other Vietnamese scholars. In none of these reviews could I find anyone talking about an author’s argument. Instead, what I saw were reviewers criticizing details in these books (and by extension, implying that the books were not good).
If an author makes an argument in a book, it’s possible for the author to make some mistakes with some details, but for the argument to still stand. The only time when mistakes with details become a real problem is when those mistakes undermine the argument.
Of course we want to read books that don’t have mistakes in them. But what we really want to see are books that make some kind of point, that put forth some kind of argument, so that we can gain a better understanding of the past. That can be successfully done with some mistaken details (as long as those mistakes don’t undermine the overall argument).
That said, I guess there is one type of book that we don’t want to see any mistake in, and that is a reference work like an encyclopedia. The idea behind an encyclopedia is that it is supposed to be 100% reliable (of course none actually are. . .), that it is a work that we can rely on for its accuracy.
Indeed, it is good to have encyclopedias for reference, but encyclopedias don’t make arguments. They don’t move scholarship forward, and they don’t provide us with new insights. They just record what we already know.
Personally, I’m not interested in reading about what I already know. I like reading monographs (i.e., specialized books) that make a new argument, even when they have some mistaken details in them. The argument is what is interesting. Who cares about the details (as long as mistakes in the details don’t undermine the argument)?
A few months ago I became aware of this web site that has “friendly, non-critical reviews of recently defended dissertations.” The idea behind it is to get people to talk about recent dissertations without being negative, and to indicate what the main point of a dissertation is, where it fits in the history of scholarship on its topic, as well as how it contributes to its field.
I think that this is an interesting concept. In reality, however, there are dissertations (and books) that are not solid, and which do not provide evidence that support their main point. I’m not sure if any such dissertations are getting reviewed on this site. If they are, then that is kind of a problem.
But in any case, what is nice about this site is that from reading the reviews one can get a good sense of what kinds of arguments people are making in different fields at the moment. That is very valuable. Much more valuable, I would argue, then finding out that a date on line 3 of page 84 is incorrect.