A new book of mine has just been published: Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore (Prometheus Books). The American Interest is kind enough to sponsor a launch of the book in Washington DC on June 29, as previously noted on this blog. I have been told that it would be okay for me to say something here about the book itself.
I was reluctant at first. A blog seems not to be a proper place to sell a blogger’s books. I changed my mind after remembering a well-known Zulu proverb: “If I don’t beat my drum, who will?” Also, this book constitutes a historic event which should be broadcast as widely as possible: As far as I know, this is the first book ever written to disprove a joke. (There is another Zulu proverb that says: “Do not worry about false modesty. All modesty is false.”)
Here is the joke:
A doctor has to tell very bad news to a patient: “All the tests have now come in. The chances are that you have only one year to live.”
The patient, after recovering from the first shock, asks, “Do you have any suggestions for me?”
“Yes. Marry a sociologist and move to North Dakota.”
“Will this cure me?”
“No. But the year will seem much longer.”
[I just noticed that I have inadvertently followed a rule of Zulu University Press: “Always tell jokes in gender-free language.” I did not intend to do this. I apologize.]
So much for the subtitle. The adjective in the title refers to the fact that I embarked on the study of sociology by mistake. I came to America as a very young man, with the intention of becoming a Lutheran minister. It occurred to me that I ought to know more about American society before I started to work in it. Sociology, I thought, was a discipline that helped people to understand a society. I lived in New York and had no money. I had to work full-time. The New School for Social Research was the only place in the city where one could do all one’s graduate study in the evening. I only had money for one course. The very first course I ever took in sociology was with Albert Salomon, a brilliant New School professor. It was called “Balzac as a Sociologist”. Salomon used Balzac’s novels to illustrate the basic concepts of sociology—a pedagogically plausible idea, since Balzac himself had meant to give a picture of his society from the top to the bottom. I must have read some ten of Balzac’s novels during that semester. At the end of that semester I knew a lot about French society in the nineteenth century, no more about American society than I had known before. But by then I was hooked on sociology (or at least the kind of sociology then taught at the New School). When I decided soon afterward that the ministry was not for me after all, it was natural to go on to a doctorate in sociology.
I had not realized how idiosyncratic sociology was at the New School at the time—taught by an unusual group of European émigré scholars as one of the humanities, close to history, philosophy and literature. It has served me well. It was particularly well suited to deal with the phenomena of religion, which became the major area of sociological inquiry for me. As it happens, I had (and have had ever since) strong religious preoccupations. But one does not have to be religious to be fascinated by the variety of religious passion, its saints and villains, its flights of (literally) surreal imagination.
The book tells some of the adventures I fell into during a long career as a sociologist. Some are quite funny and, I hope, entertaining. They have been anything but boring. Sociology at its best is based on an endless curiosity about what makes people tick, and about the forces that shape societies at particular junctures of history. Thus this book is not so much about me, as about the excitement of understanding the vagaries of the human world.